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A Girl's Best Friend? Diamonds, Death and Profits

It is a profound and tragic irony that diamonds, marketed in London, New York and Antwerp as the eternal symbol of love and beauty, are potent symbols of hate and disfigurement, misery and suffering to the millions of people in whose countries they are mined.

In Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo and Angola, the diamond trade has pought with it years of conflict and instability and the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of Africans perceived as standing in the way of the lucrative profits the increasingly illicit trade pings.

The statistics speak for themselves. In Angola, between 1992 and 1997, U.N.I.T.A. earned $3.7 billion from illegal diamond sales, helping them fuel a war in which 500,000 were killed. In under ten years of fighting, Jonas Savimbi built his rag-tag army up into one of the best armed irregular forces around, all thanks to diamonds he traded for state-of-the-art weaponry. In Sierra Leone, between 1991 and 1999, over 50,000 died and many more were maimed (their limbs hacked off with machetes) whilst government forces fought the rebel R.U.F. over an illegal diamond industry worth over $200 million a year. And in nearby Liberia, between 1989 and 1997, 150,000 died as a result of a conflict fought over control of the diamond trade. Liberia, which incidentally has no significant diamond deposits of its own, nevertheless runs a $300 million plus diamond trade with the help of troops loyal to Sierra Leone's R.U.F. leader Foday Sankah. Such is the illicit global trade in diamonds that the US State Department believes it to be worth anything up to $7 billion a year.

The diamond trail usually starts in the dusty towns of Angola, in the Sierra Leone wilderness or the jungle terrain surrounding Kisangani in the Congo, where half-naked workers labour with pick, spade and drill, guarded by miniature and well-equipped armies. Small mine owners pass on their stones they unearth to local dealers, though not before the guards' commanders have had their share, and likewise the local dealers have to make payment to the local militia leaders, who similarly have to pass a share to their seniors.

Immense armies can be spread over hundreds of thousands of miles of diamond rich land, providing safe passage to all prepared to pay the price, whilst governments and warlords sell concessions to mine, with concession purchasers selling them on to anyone keen on making a killing (no pun intended).

There are of course other key figures, albeit playing as low a profile as possible. They include Burkina Faso's leader Blaise Compaore and Liberia's Charles Taylor, who help speed smooth passage by circumventing the controls imposed by the U.N. and other regulatory bodies. Meanwhile, the governments of Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe provide military help to warlords in exchange for these little shiny stones and the right to mine them. In the case of the latter, critics of Robert Mugabe accuse him of donating 11,000 troops to the conflict in the Congo in return for diamond field concessions.

And of course there is the middle men who make the deals, find further safe passage for the diamonds to the western markets and supply the weapons that fuel the conflicts and ensure the diamonds keep coming.

Investigators working with the United Nations (U.N.) recognise a well organised international network of smuggling involving numerous west and southern African countries, with further links to freight companies supplying arms from the United Arab Emirates to Bulgaria and the Ukraine. Whilst the R.U.F. in Sierra Leone have been provided with former Soviet surface-to-air missiles, at the height of the Angolan war over twenty Ilyushin aircraft could be found landing on one airstrip each evening, each loaded with military hardware.

Whilst pressure groups, such as Global Witness, the U.N. and other diamond industry regulatory bodies try to introduce an "ethical dimension" into the trade, the dealers themselves fear their efforts will undermine consumer demand because of the diamond's link with limbless children in West Africa. Provenance certificates, supposedly implying that this and that diamond has no blood on it have been suggested, but such a move would require the co-operation of bankers, pokers and buyers in Tel Aviv, Antwerp and Bombay-the three main diamond centres—and indeed the governments of several countries, including Liberia, who are only too happy to overlook the fact that a few hundred carats true cost is a child hobbling along on crutches and provide forged documents.

As Herbert Rowe, a political scientist specialising in African affairs at Georgetown University in Washington noted: "Even in the Cold War, superpowers did not allow the wholesale ripping up of the economy, the use of children as soldiers and attacks upon relief groups" (The Guardian, London, U.K., 14/05/2000). He is of course referring to countries like Sierra Leone, now the poorest country on earth and whose population has enjoyed no health or education system for ten years, as a direct result of the mayhem that has been set loose because of the greed for the profits that diamonds ping.

Further anti-diamond trade measures have included a boycott of diamonds. But the truth is that- although the trade pings so much misery in its wake-the average piece of diamond-laden jewellery on display in the local high street has only a 4 percent chance of having an illicit source and that the diamond most likely originated in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa or the Russian Federation. Further, any such embargo would hit "innocent" diamond producing and cutting countries such as Botswana and India, the latter with a diamond industry employing 800,000.

The fact that only 4 percent of the diamonds that adorn our loved ones are bloodstained and that this 4 percent has caused so much chaos and upset throughout Africa suggests, more than anything, the intrinsic danger of the incentive to make a profit at any cost. All the controls it is possible to impose upon the diamond trade would not distract one iota from the fact that, at whatever human cost, if there are profits to be made from the trade then profits will be made. This is the essential nature of capitalism, even in its more overt and legal forms. If profits can be made, no matter how small, they will be made and to hell with anyone who stands in the way.

The task is not to try to regulate the diamond trade more efficiently, but to end the system that makes the diamond the commodity it is; to banish forever the system that conditions us into thinking that wearing a shiny stone pings status and respect. Since this journal's inception ninety-five years ago, we have consistently reported the wars and conflicts, the misery and sufferings our class has endured in the name of the profits derived from mineral wealth and its possession by an elite. We expect, for the foreseeable future, to carry on in this tradition until our class truly wakes up.