Sierra Leone Welcomes Possible Export Ban, But Diamond Dealers Skeptical

June 8, 2000

Sierra Leone Welcomes Possible Export
Ban, But Diamond Dealers Skeptical

Sierra Leone's government Tuesday welcomed a possible ban on illegal exports of its diamonds as a way to reduce arms supplies to rebel forces. However, diamond dealers warned that such a ban would be hard to enforce, and political analysts said it was no guarantee of an end to a brutal conflict in which the struggle for control of the diamond fields has been a key factor.

Sierra Leone's nine-year civil war resumed in May when rebels took hundreds of United Nations peacekeepers hostage, killed several more and began marching toward Freetown in defiance of the 1999 peace accord the U.N. was policing.

Britain, which supports President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, wants the U.N. Security Council to impose a global embargo on any diamond exports from Sierra Leone not authorized by the government. A draft resolution is expected to be circulated later this week.

"Diamonds are the main source of revenue for the RUF rebels who are using them to purchase weapons to commit atrocities," said presidential spokesman Septimus Kaikai. "If we can stop that, then we will reduce their ability to continue fighting," he told Reuters. But it may not be feasible to stop the sale of rebel diamonds – most of which are smuggled through Liberia, a country friendly to the RUF – while at the same time allowing stones exported legally through Freetown to escape an embargo.

Britain and human rights groups have long demanded an end to the trade in so-called "conflict" or "blood" diamonds – gems from war zones like Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola often used to finance arms purchases. There is evidence that Foday Sankoh's rebels in Sierra Leone have been selling stones to dealers across the ill-defined front line in exchange for money and goods. "People have always smuggled diamonds in Sierra Leone, usually to get a better price, sometimes because they were stolen. It is not going to stop just like that," said one dealer.

Difficulties In Enforcing Ban
Dealers say it is possible for an expert to distinguish stones from different regions of the country but add that it is not clear at what stage of the supply chain measures to restrict sales of rebel diamonds could be effective. "The only sure way to stop the rebels exporting diamonds is to take the diamondiferous areas from them," the dealer said.

Kaikai said government estimates based on documents found in Sankoh's house after fighting erupted last month pointed to possible rebel exports of anywhere between $20 million and $60 million per year. When Sankoh launched the war in 1991, he promised impoverished peasant communities a greater share of the mineral and other wealth misused by a succession of corrupt governments since independence from Britain.

- by Mark E. Dixon