Death by Diamonds

Children are the victims in Africa's grab for riches

by Peter Moszynski

Toward Freedom magazine September / October 2000


Human rights groups are increasingly focusing on the links between war and mineral resources-particularly what are known as "conflict diamonds." Such tainted diamonds, they say, have fueled wars where children have been used as combatants. And the countries that have bought these diamonds from the region must be targeted, just like countries that have sold the gems.

Moves to freeze funds to Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels follow sanctions against anyone supporting UNITA rebels in Angola, whose decades-old guerrilla campaign against the government has also been funded through the illegal export of such diamonds.

In August, the UN Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against the RUF approved a Sierra Leone government proposal for the legal mining and exporting of diamonds. This involves a sophisticated system of certification and numbering on security paper to prevent tampering, and a warning that tampering is a violation of the Security Council resolution.

"I think this is a major step," said Bangladesh's UN Ambassador, who chaired the Sanctions Committee. "It will bring in hope and legitimate earnings into the coffers of the Sierra Leone government."

The international diamond industry is also attempting to prevent conflict countries' rough diamonds from getting into the world market. The entire market could be tainted by the four percent of gems that the industry estimates have been used to fund rebel insurgencies.

The Diamond High Council in Antwerp, the world's largest diamond trading center, has set up a new electronic database of Sierra Leone diamond exports with electronic confirmation at the destination. New digital photographs will also accompany the documentation. "You want to make sure that the diamond you are putting on your loved one's finger did not help cut off the finger or hand of a child in Sierra Leone or Angola or Congo," argues British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain.

The international clampdown follows recent studies of the Sierra Leone diamond trade and its international connections that demonstrated the centrality of diamonds to that country's brutal conflict. Charmian Gooch of Global Witness, one of the groups campaigning for a clampdown on illicit gems, notes, "It is clear that the RUF's atrocities were largely funded by diamond revenues. It appears likely that 'conflict diamonds' have fueled the recruitment and terrorization of children in this appalling civil war."

Now, as the UN establishes a special criminal court for Sierra Leone, there are also growing calls to indict the leadership of neighboring countries for their role in destabilizing the region. At the Security Council special session on Sierra Leone early in August, speakers denounced the involvement of both Liberia and Burkina Faso. Consequently, the Security Council has established an expert panel to examine links between diamond and arms trafficking in Sierra Leone, and to investigate compliance with its Resolution 1306, banning trade in diamonds from rebel held areas.

"The Security Council has been debating the link between illicit trade in resources, small arms, and the use of child soldiers," says the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "Now is the time to put theory into action by cutting the financial lifeline to such groups, whether it be trade in diamonds or funding from abroad."

Stephen Patterson, a senior British representative at the UN Sanctions Committee hearing in August, claimed that there are long-standing links between President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, President Charles Taylor of Liberia, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who is now in detention. The widespread use of child soldiers, systematic cruelty, and a gruesome campaign of terror against other young children characterize the

Sierra Leone insurgency. The rebel movement was almost unimaginably brutal from its inception in the early 1990s, using techniques refined by Taylor's forces in Liberia.

"Children have been a major source of recruitment for several factions, particularly the RUF," according to Joanna Van Gerpen, head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone. "As the illegal diamond trade has fueled the ongoing conflict, it has certainly been a major factor contributing to the ongoing use of children as tools of war in Sierra Leone."

The RUF, short on manpower, developed a method for recruiting children right from the start. Girls as young as 10 were raped into submission. Boys were forced to execute village elders and sometimes even their own parents, cutting themselves off from their past lives and ensuring their absorption into their new rebel "family." Once children were conscripted, their loyalty was maintained through drugs and violence. When conscripts tried to escape, they were punished with branding or amputation. Countless other children-even infants-had their limbs hacked.

While welcoming the naming and shaming of neighboring states for their involvement in the conflict, Gooch says the UN "has failed to act on a critical issue: the culpability of importing markets in financing the RUF. Any country importing diamonds from the region could find itself in breach of international sanctions."


Peter Moszynski is a British freelance journalist who travels widely in Europe and Africa. The International Conference on War-Affected Children convened Sept. 11-17 in Winnipeg, Canada.

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