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West Africa

Blood diamonds

by Floreana Miesen
Victims of RUF’s systematic mass mutilation in Sierra Leone

Victims of RUF’s systematic mass mutilation in Sierra Leone

In late April, a UN Special Court based in The Hague, found former Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty because of the role he played in Sierra Leone’s eleven-year civil war. The trade in blood diamonds was the focal point of the trial, which demonstrated how natural resource exploitation can serve to fund armed conflict and lead to the abuse of human rights. By Floreana Miesen

As a Liberian rebel commander, Taylor was fighting Liberia’s dictator Samuel Doe in the early 1990s. Eventually, Sierra Leone’s one-party regime under President Joseph Saidu Momoh sent troops in Doe’s support. Taylor prevailed in Liberia and, in March 1991, he began supporting the militia RUF (Revolutionary United Front) in Sierra Leone. Eleven years of civil war followed. High unemployment and the militarisation of society boosted people’s inclination towards violence.

Tens of thousands fled from rape and murder. More than 5,000 child soldiers were forcibly recruited. Many were given drugs and forced to commit barbarities. Most of all, however, the RUF became known for mass mutilation. According to an estimate by the humanitarian agency medico international, the rebels hacked off limbs of about 20,000 civilians.

Revenues from blood diamonds served to fund terrorism. According to the UN court, Taylor ordered the RUF to gain control over the mines, exchanged diamonds for weapons he imported from Europe, and thus facilitated arms smuggling.

Ultimately, the war was about the control of natural resources, argues medico international. Rebels benefited, and so did Sierra Leone’s government and the diamond industry. By the war’s end, the RUF was generating an annual $ 25 million to $ 125 million this way. In 2001, peace negotiations were conducted under pressure from the UN, and the war ended one year later.

In 2002, the Kimberley Process (KP) introduced an international certification system for conflict-free diamonds. From 2003 on, some exporting countries have committed to preventing the trade in diamonds from conflict regions. However, the KP faces criticism. In the view of some civil society organisations, it failed in 2011 because of neglect of state violence and inhumane mining conditions (see D+C/E+Z 2011/09, p. 351). Another point of criticism was that the KP lacked control by an independent party. For these reasons, the civil society organisation Global Witness quit the KP.

Traumatised people

Today, Sierra Leone is at peace, but the country still bears deep scars. The latest Human Development Index (HDI) ranked Sierra Leone number 180 of 187 countries. Nearly 20 % of children die before their fifth birthday. Only about 40 % of adults over 15 years can read and write. And almost two-thirds of the people live on less than $ 1.25 purchasing power a day.

To date, thousands of survivors lack medical or psychosocial support. The absence of compensation reinforces the traumas of war. Due to a general amnesty at the end of the war, many perpetrators of criminal violence live in close proximity to their victims today. The militia members benefit from impunity and reintegration programmes, but the state is not paying adequate attention to their victims.

Sierra Leone is now a relatively stable country. Ernest Bai Koroma is its elected president, and his government is working on reforms in the resource sector. Nonetheless, there are still complaints about slavery-type working conditions in mines, corruption and unreliable rule of law. Business is still not trans­parent. Distrust prevails. For a long time, the diamond export tax in Sierra Leone was only three percent. It was only increased to 15 % at the end of 2009.

In Liberia, which also depends on resource exports, elections recently confirmed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in office. She has contributed to making the commodities sector more transparent. Liberia was one of the first two member countries of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which became compliant with its innovative policy standards (see interview with former EITI Chair Peter Eigen in this edition).

Liberia passed its Natural Resource Transparency Law in 2009. The law requires the publication of all contracts and transactions in the natural resource sector. However, Jonathan Gant of Global Witness considers Liberia’s state capacities too weak to actually control the diamond trade. In this case, he says, the KP is a useful addition to government action, but Liberian legislation is not typical of the region. In Liberia, moreover, diamonds play a minor role. Iron ore is of much greater economic relevance.

In cooperation with international organisations like the World Bank, the Liberian government has developed a mapping tool to facilitate the monitoring of the thousands of small formerly granted mining concessions. “From what we gather, capacity within the Ministry remains low, however, and it has proven difficult to get Ministry staff from Monrovia to go out into these little towns and these mining concession areas,” says Gant.

In 2003, the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) indicted Charles Taylor. This spring, he was found guilty in all 11 charges – including war crimes and crimes against humanity. He now faces a life sentence in Britain. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the reactions ranged from quiet joy to jubilation. Critics of the judgement, however, say that Taylor’s guilt was not proven beyond doubt in individual cases, which is the norm for criminal trials.

Floreana Miesen