Sierra Leone's Diamonds Make News Again

May 11, 2000

Sierra Leone's Diamonds Make News Again
Diamonds were once again in the thick of controversy amid the failure of the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in conflict-torn Sierra Leone. Americans and Europeans have fled the country, while nine African states are considering deploying a West African force to reinstate the peace. The U.N. peacekeeping force has been largely ineffective at stopping rebels from continuing to mine and smuggle diamonds or commit atrocities against civilians. In addition, nearly 500 U.N. soldiers have been captured by rebel forces led by Foday Sankoh, who has now disappeared, according to The New York Times.

The failure of the peacekeeping efforts was predicted by many, following Sankoh's release from prison last year as part of a peace deal forged by the U.S., with help from Rev. Jesse Jackson. Sankoh was given a prominent role in Sierra Leone's new government by U.N. officials who completed the plan, with the understanding his rebel forces cooperate with U.N. peacekeepers and disarm. Sankoh was given the post of chairman of the Strategic Minerals Commission, which controls diamond mining.

Since the shaky peace was forged last July, according to The Times, Sankoh's rebel forces did not abandon their weapons and have prevented the peacekeeping troops from entering the diamond mining areas. Rebel miners continued to dig. The diamonds gleaned there, says The Times, have financed the rebel forces and allowed them to become better equipped.

Before the peacekeeping efforts began, Sankoh's group gained access to diamond fields in eastern Sierra Leone by committing horrifying crimes again civilians, said a Times report. The rebels' trademark strategy, chopping off limbs, terrified those in the diamond fields. Civilians fled ahead of the advancing rebel troops.

Sankoh also continued to be aligned with Charles Taylor, the Liberian rebel leader who now serves as president of that country. Diplomats, human rights experts and diamond industry experts say Liberia is the main smuggling route for Sierra Leone's rebel-mined diamonds. Liberia and Sankoh denied these allegations, but evidence suggests otherwise, says the Times. Liberia exported 31 million carats of diamonds since the mid-1990s – more than 200 years' worth of Liberia's national capacity – according to Belgian trading records.

International officials are hoping a coordinated regional peacekeeping force will be more effective at reinstating order than the U.N. peacekeepers.

- by Peggy Jo Donahue