Analyst: Trial Spotlights Scourge of Conflict Diamonds

BY Larisa Epatko  August 5, 2010 at 3:16 PM EST


Journalists watch Naomi Campbell testifying at war crimes trial. Photo by Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images

British supermodel Naomi Campbell testified Thursday at the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor that she received a small bag of “dirty-looking stones” after attending a dinner with the leader, but couldn’t say for certain if they came from him.

Prosecutors at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone are trying to prove that Taylor provided guns to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for “blood” diamonds — gemstones illegally obtained and used to finance conflict.

The trial is raising awareness about the use of illegally obtained diamonds and emphasizes the need for more government oversight over the problem, said Corinna Gilfillan, head of the U.S. office for Global Witness, a group that promotes policies to stop natural resource corruption and conflict.

She explains more in this Q&A:

Did anything from today’s proceedings stand out to you?

CORINNA GILFILLAN: [Campbell's] testimony is drawing fresh attention to the problem of blood diamonds and how diamonds have fueled horrible conflict and human rights abuses in several African countries, particularly that we’ve heard about in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

I think that the other thing her testimony draws attention to is the fact that blood diamonds are still a problem today. We have a problem of diamonds fueling conflict and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, so I think that it draws attention to consumers to the fact that there are still blood diamonds out there in the international marketplace.

What’s the alleged role of conflict diamonds in the Charles Taylor case?

CORINNA GILFILLAN: The trial of former warlord, and president, Taylor really shows how he basically used sales of illegal diamonds to pay for his brutal campaign in Sierra Leone and Liberia. And those conflicts that were fueled by diamonds really had significant consequences.

For example, half a million people killed and many more assaulted, raped, displaced and tortured. That’s why it is so important to make sure that we have a very strong international system to combat the trade in blood diamonds.

How difficult is it to track blood diamonds and to quantify the problem?

CORINNA GILFILLAN: It shouldn’t be a problem because we have an international diamond certification scheme called the Kimberley Process and this certification process is supposed to keep out blood diamonds and prevent diamonds from getting into the legitimate diamond trade. And it’s an effort supported by major diamond trading/producing governments, and the diamond industry and civil society.

However, the Kimberley Process has a lot of weaknesses. Most importantly, there’s inadequate government oversight over the diamond industry and how the diamond industry produces and trades diamonds. Because of that fundamental flaw, unfortunately, we’re not able to guarantee consumers that the diamonds they buy in shops in New York or Paris or wherever are conflict-free.

So Global Witness believes it’s absolutely critical for governments to do more to regulate the diamond industry and make sure that they’re sourcing from conflict-free sources. Unfortunately, the diamond industry has largely self-regulated themselves and they’ve proven that they’re not able to do that, so more government oversight is needed.

What are the challenges to increasing government oversight?

CORINNA GILFILLAN: The primary challenge is political will. It’s getting the major diamond producing and trading countries in the Kimberley Process to take strong actions against those countries that are not in compliance with the Kimberley Process.

For example, Zimbabwe is a clear case where the government there and the military there have committed horrific human rights abuses among civilians working in the diamond-mining areas in Zimbabwe. Despite these human right abuses and rampant diamond smuggling, Zimbabwe is still a member of the Kimberley Process. And the Kimberley Process has not taken swift and decisive action to control the problem there.

So I think that one very important way to address that is to really hold governments to account who aren’t complying with the Kimberley Process and to have more government oversight over the diamond industry. It’s entirely possible, but it takes political will to do that.

And I think consumers can play a large role in trying to push governments and the diamond industry to do more just by asking questions when they go and buy a diamond. Asking jewelry stores where the diamond is coming from, what kind of policies do you have to make sure this diamond is not being used to finance conflict. Asking those kinds of questions can really create a lot of pressure on the industry and governments to do more.