Conflict Diamonds Receive Attention from Hollywood

December 13, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: For the diamond industry, the Christmas season should be the best and most lucrative time of year. But a new film, “Blood Diamond,” has cast an unwelcome light on the dark side of the glittering trade, by highlighting the role of so-called “conflict diamonds” in fueling war and terror in a number of African nations.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, ACTOR: That diamond could be priceless! We split it, and you get your family. What’s it going to be? Yes or no? Yes or no?

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonardo DiCaprio plays an arms smuggler in hot pursuit of a giant diamond found and hidden by a villager, played by actor Djimon Hounsou. As the two seek both the stone and Hounsou’s son, pressed into service as a child soldier, the film details the all-too-real toll exacted on the people caught in the middle.

The movie is set in the 1990s, amid the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, where warring sides used the sale of diamonds on the international market to finance their purchases of weapons.

Abibatu Dainkeh, now 22 and part of a large refugee community in the Washington area, lived through that war. One day, rebels came to her town and threatened to burn her and her family out of their home.

ABIBATU DAINKEH, Sierra Leone Refugee: Some of us ran, ran away. And, later at night, they still came back, and I was in the swamp, you know, watching my house getting burned.

At that time, I was running away because they were trying to take young girls that were even younger than my age and trying to rape them, and I didn’t want to be a victim of that. So I had to run into swamps, into bushes, running on top of dead bodies, until, fortunately, I was able to save my life.

'Increasing public awareness'

JEFFREY BROWN: The potential harsh publicity from the film led to a P.R. offensive by the diamond industry, which says it's worked hard to combat the traffic in illegal diamonds.

The so-called Kimberley Process, formulated by the industry and sanctioned by the United Nations in 2002, was established to monitor and certify diamond sales.

This holiday season, some diamond merchants have taken the issue head-on. Washington-based Mervis Diamond Importers has aired radio ads pledging to its customers that its diamonds are clean.

TV COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: At Mervis, all of our diamonds are imported in strict compliance with international laws, known as the Kimberley Process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Zwick directed "Blood Diamond."

EDWARD ZWICK, Director, "Blood Diamond": The Kimberley Process came about because of increased public awareness. And if this movie succeeds in further increasing that awareness, it's only going to strengthen a process that needs to be greater strengthened. The warranties of that process have got to be made ironclad, or else they're worthless.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Blood Diamond" is not the first dramatic effort to focus attention on the issue; the hip-hop artist Kanye West released "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" last year.

And two recent films, 2005's "Lord of War," and the 2002 James Bond film "Die Another Day," had plot lines that revolved around the illegal diamond trade. For her part, Abibatu Dainkeh says she hopes "Blood Diamond" and other films lead to understanding.

ABIBATU DAINKEH: A lot of people, you know, might have heard about Sierra Leoneans, why they're here. They might of heard of the civil war. But they might not know what really happened, what the people went through and how they suffered, you know, what exactly made people come to America.

HISTORY CHANNEL NARRATOR: Literally millions of people have lost their lives as a result of conflict in blood diamonds.

JEFFREY BROWN: One more take on the issue comes later this month, when the History Channel airs a documentary titled "Blood Diamonds."

And for more on all this, we turn to Greg Campbell, author of "Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones." The producers of the movie "Blood Diamond" used his book as background material, but Mr. Campbell himself had no association with the movie or its production.

Also with us is Dana Harris, the film editor of Daily Variety.

Using diamonds to finance war

JEFFREY BROWN: Greg Campbell, why don't you give us a brief sense, first, of how the process worked of using diamonds to finance a war?

GREG CAMPBELL, Author, "Blood Diamonds:" Yes, certainly. It was actually quite simple. If you consider the commodity that is being smuggled -- generally, we're talking about untraceable pebbles, millions of dollars' worth, which can be smuggled in or on the human body and are undetectable once they leave the scene of the crime, so to speak -- it is practically impossible for experts to tell, unless given a large enough sample, where in the world the diamond originated.

So the simple method of getting conflict diamonds was for an armed group -- and in the case of Sierra Leone, we're talking about the Revolutionary United Front -- to invade and simply walk into a village where the diamond mining was taking place.

And then, at gunpoint, they would often kill as many people as they liked, threaten many others with some of the most brutal forms of torture in recent memory. In particular, the rebels of the RUF would amputate the arms of their victims, and even in the face of many of them begging for death.

And then they would put them on the road towards the next diamond village that they hoped to conquer. And it was very simple to see how a strategy like that would induce terror among the population and make it that much easier for the rebels to capture those diamond fields.

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. How widespread was this practice? Do we know what percentage of the diamond industry were we talking about when this was at its height, I gather, in the '90s?

GREG CAMPBELL: Well, you're talking about, first of all, several conflict zones, one in Sierra Leone. The Democratic Republican of Congo was another. And Angola, those are the main regions. There's another that's in the news now, the northern half of the Ivory Coast.

And, you know, statistics are difficult to come by, because this was an illicit trade and it's so hard to actually track these diamonds from place to place. But the number that I've heard that most people agree upon is 4 percent to 5 percent of the global production of rough diamonds likely came from conflict zones.

The 'public relations battle'

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dana Harris, some commentators have noted the irony of Hollywood turning the attention on the dark side of this industry, when Hollywood has a long history of portraying the glamour of diamonds.

DANA HARRIS, Film Editor, Daily Variety: And they continue to. You know, loaning out diamonds and other jewels is part of the annual ritual for award seasons every year. Harry Winston loans out millions.

It is ironic. But at the same time, it's obviously being done from a very different point of view. This falls under the category of, you know, "message films," and obviously a really horrific conflict that has a lot of dramatic potential. But, yes, it's definitely rife with irony.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a bit more about the public relations battle that has gone on since this movie was announced and, of course, since it stars one of Hollywood's big stars in Leonardo DiCaprio. What's happened?

DANA HARRIS: Well, the P.R. machine on this -- estimates have been around $15 million, in terms of the P.R. efforts of the World Diamond Council and De Beers, spearheaded by Sitrick and Company, which is one of the big crisis management P.R. firms. And they've been working really hard to make sure that they control the message.

In respect of Russell Simmons having a De Beers-sponsored trip to Africa to discuss a fact-finding mission for diamonds, and also there's been some accusations by Amnesty International that stories were leaked to "Page Six" that were discrediting to the blood diamond filmmakers, criticisms that Mr. Zwick hotly denied and said that were flat-out lies, but they got the alternate message out there, which is the conflict isn't either, a, as bad as they say, or, b, it's already over with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Campbell, the industry has pointed, as we said, to what's called the Kimberley Process. Tell us a little bit about how that really works and how effective it's been.

GREG CAMPBELL: Well, taking you back just quickly before the Kimberley Process, the way that the trade worked around the world was largely on a handshake. The international diamond industry is very, very small and cloistered, and they tend to, you know, basically be run by a small group of people who generally know one another pretty well.

So, you know, there was not a lot of necessity before the conflict diamond issue became such a public issue to account for where the diamonds came from, to prove that they came from one place or the other.

What the Kimberley Process hopes to do is to institute a program of guarantees and certificates so that, as diamonds move across borders from importing and exporting countries, they can theoretically be tracked back to their source.

And I say "theoretically" because it's still in its formative stages. It's been instituted since 2003. And there are many flaws in the system. Going back to one of my earlier comments, one of which is the size and the mobility of the commodity it seeks to keep an eye on.

One of the other biggest problems is that, from the point of extraction, the first point where the diamond is found and mined, to its first point of export, there are no certificates or guarantees. There are pledges that the diamonds that are being offered for export under the protections of the Kimberley Process are conflict-free.

But, you know, I've been to some of these mines in Sierra Leone. And, you know, we're talking about very unindustrialized mines. You know, the diamonds are extracted by human labor and physically handed hand-to-hand from one person to the next.

And it's very simple, in fact, to move diamonds that are from conflict zones into legitimate parcels that are being offered under the protection of the Kimberley Process certificate.

Hollywood's effectiveness

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Harris, Hollywood tends to take up issues and take on industries from time to time. Is there any way of knowing how effective it is, or, in this case, in impacting consumers, in this particular instance?

DANA HARRIS: Well, you know, right now, the irony is the diamond industry seems to be doing as well as ever, if not better. The recent figures show an actual up-tick in the season for diamonds, which is one of the reasons that the diamond industry was so nervous about this film.

It's coming out around Christmas, which is prime diamond season. The Oscar campaign comes around Valentine's Day, another one.

So far, there really hasn't been any sign of an impact on the diamond industry. But at the same time, a lot of times this is an aggregate thing. The awareness is raised at one point, and this may trigger other things down the line. And maybe one day they'll point back to "Blood Diamond" and say, "That's where the awareness began," or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Campbell, I guess we need to point out the larger context here is the diamond industry's importance to many countries in Africa continues. So they have a real stake in how this plays out and whether consumers respond in a negative way, as well, right?

GREG CAMPBELL: Well, very much so. It's truly a double-edged sword.

If you see the film -- and, in my opinion, its depiction of the horrors of the rebel war in Sierra Leone were actually a little mild, compared to what I think the truth of the matter was -- it will still be very shocking, I think, to diamond consumers to realize that some of the most precious gifts that they've ever received or are considering giving may be responsible for some of these atrocities that are depicted very accurately, I believe, in the movie.

But, at the same time, it would be, I think, a disaster if people stopped buying diamonds and turned away from them, because, ironically, now that Sierra Leone is at peace, sales of its diamonds into the global international market is one of the, if not the only, thing that is going to bring the country up to developed standards.

And, in fact, there are shining examples of this in Africa. Botswana is a great example of a country where diamonds have done a great deal of good for that country. It's a peaceful, democratic country that, in 1999, had the fastest-growing economy in the world.

So a backlash against diamonds on any type of important or significant scale could certainly impact not just the industry and the wealth of a couple of millionaires scattered around the globe, but also the prosperity of some of the few peaceful nations in Africa.