Sierra Leone

Blood Diamonds

Diamond seekers work a diamond mine outside Freetown. (Photo: Desirey Minkoh / AFP-Getty Images)

Staring into the eyes of a photographed teenager who lost both hands to rebel’s machetes at the Waterloo Camp in Sierra Leone I felt a surge of mixed emotions: pain, compassion, anger, discontent and the need for a more effective campaign against “conflict diamonds.”

Recently, rapper Kanye West raised the issue of conflict “blood” diamonds in his song “Diamonds” (featuring Jay-Z). Conflict diamonds — diamonds mined and traded by rebel groups — have been the source of murder and mutilation in the small, west-African country of Sierra Leone. In the song, West voices his own inner conflict with diamonds:

See, a part of me say keep shinin’
How? When I know what a “Blood Diamond” is …

In his video, West takes his message even further. The video takes viewers into dimly lit diamond mines, where children are forced to mine for “small bits of carbon that have no intrinsic value in themselves, and no value whatsoever to the average Sierra Leonean beyond their attraction to foreigners.”

According to a report by Partnership Africa Canada (P.A.C.), “upwards of 50,000 [have been] killed, half the population displaced, and more than two-thirds of its already severely limited infrastructure destroyed.” Meanwhile, the underground trade of illicit diamonds is booming. Conflict diamonds are valued “between 4 percent and 15 percent of the world total” and generate annual trade revenues of $7.5 billion.

Sierra Leone’s war over conflict diamonds began in March 1991 when “a few hundred men crossed over the Liberian border and attacked towns in eastern and southern Sierra Leone.” Early in 1992, the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.), a ruthless rebel group seized Kono, the diamond mining capital of Sierra Leone. In an effort to stabilize the region and restore democratic civilian rule, the National Provisional Ruling Council (N.P.R.C.) became engaged in a war with R.U.F. rebels.

The N.P.R.C. initiated “Operation Genesis” to drive out R.U.F. rebels, but was unsuccessful. The rebels, in turn, launched a vicious attack on Sierra Leoneans during the 1996 elections. To intimidate potential voters and to maintain control of the diamond mines, the rebels chopped off the hands and feet of adults, teens, children and even infants. In spite of these brutal attacks, the R.U.F. was invited to participate in the elections. But the rebels once again reverted to their depraved tactics, amputating civilians’ hands and feet.

In November 1996, the newly elected president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah signed a peace agreement in Abidjan, which gave the R.U.F. an opportunity to become a legitimate political party. Instead, R.U.F. rebels colluded with insurgents of the Sierra Leonean army and formed the Armed Forces Ruling Council (A.F.R.C.), which ousted Kabbah. During this time, there was no international intervention on behalf of Sierra Leoneans.

Finally, in February 1998 Nigerian-led forces of the Military Observer Group of the Economic Community of West African States (E.C.O.M.O.G.) removed A.F.R.C. rebels from Freetown and reinstated Kabbah. But Nigerian forces could not contain R.U.F. rebels. A re-charged R.U.F. re-emerged in January 1999 “killing an estimated 6,000 civilians and mutilating many more.”

Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, was the formidable force behind R.U.F. rebels. Taylor, who later became President of Liberia, not only participated in the illicit diamond trade, he “acted as mentor, trainer, banker and weapons supplier” for the R.U.F. Charles Taylor used R.U.F. rebels to integrate a substantial amount of illicit diamonds (valued in the millions) into the global trade, and then used profits to purchase weapons, which reinforced the R.U.F.’s military strength.

By July 1999, the violence had escalated. The government of Sierra Leone was forced to sign another peace agreement in Lomé, Togo, which “legitimized the R.U.F. and brought it into the government with several cabinet positions.” The R.U.F., however, was not interested in rebuilding Sierra Leone only regaining control of the diamonds mines of Kono District and Tongo Field. As a result, thousands of Sierra Leoneans were killed and mutilated mainly because there was no large scale, international intervention in the early stages of the war.

The United Nations did not intervene in Sierra Leone until June 2001 — 10 years after the war began. And, compared to the murderous rampage of R.U.F. rebels, U.N. sanctions appeared lenient: “a ban on Liberian diamond sales, and a ban on travel by Liberian officials, including its president, and tougher weapons sanctions.” It was practically impossible for the United Nations to enforce these sanctions since an official report “showed conclusively that there was virtually no oversight of the international movement of diamonds.” Similarly, a U.N. expert panel “reported that the then ‘interim’ leader of the R.U.F., Issa Sesay, [violated U.N. sanctions and] flew to Abidjan late in 2001 with 8,000 carats of diamonds which he sold to two dealers of undisclosed identity.”

The United Nations did not seriously intervene in Sierra Leone’s war until January 2002 when it sent the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil), a 17,000-man peacekeeping force to supervise disarmament and “to uphold the provisions of the Lomé agreement.” Immediately following U.N. intervention, the war gained international attention after Unamsil peacekeepers were prohibited from conducting an investigation of diamond areas controlled by the R.U.F.

In March 2003, the U.N. Special Court in Sierra Leone “indicted several of those involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international humanitarian law.” But the fate of those indicted is uncertain. The U.N. Court cannot simply “round up” the usual suspects and think that is enough.

The most worrying aspect of the war in Sierra Leone is the international community’s belated response. In three separate incidents — in Rwanda, Sudan and Sierra Leone — the international community has turned a blind eye while génocidaires, the janjaweed and R.U.F. rebels wreaked havoc on their civilian populations.

Ikechi Mgbeoji’s book, Collective Insecurity examines the hidden causes of West Africa’s civil wars and addresses an important question: “Why has the U.N. system not worked to protect people and to enhance their welfare, as intended, in Africa and elsewhere?” In his book, Mgbeoji proposes, “the solution to African political instability lies in a structural rearrangement of the African polity for the purpose of legitimate governance of African peoples.”

Considering the U.N.’s response to the war in Sierra Leone, it has a long way to go in its responsibility to ensure “legitimate governance under international law.” But U.N. efforts alone won’t stop the senseless killing in Sierra Leone over illicit diamonds. Kayne West’s song and video about “blood diamonds” makes us take an honest look at ourselves and ask: Is my fascination with diamonds contributing to the violence in Sierra Leone?