Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme


As a diamond smuggling investigator for the UN from 2001-2003 in Liberia, I saw at first hand the importance that diamonds had on providing funds for the vicious rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone and for maintaining Charles Taylor in power in neighbouring Liberia. Diamonds were perhaps the most valuable assets available to all parties involved in the conflict in Sierra Leone.

It took the groundbreaking work of NGO Partnership Africa Canada on blood diamonds in Sierra Leone to convince the UN to take action on diamonds. UN sanctions were finally imposed towards the end of the civil war in July 2000 under resolution 1306, banning the trade in Sierra Leone of rough diamonds until such a time as the Sierra Leonean government had effective certification scheme in place.

Until this point, the RUF had, with the support and encouragement of Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia, exported relatively large quantities of diamonds every year. Official exports of 'Liberian' diamonds had sky rocketed from Monrovia in 2000. The Sierra Leone diamond embargo was extended by the Security Council until June 2003, when the president of the Council announced the ban would not be extended, given the success of the Kimberley process certification scheme, which had come into operation in 2002.

While the Kimberley process was not a UN mechanism, it was the scheme for exporting diamonds legally from Sierra Leone recognized by the Security Council. We should credit the success of Kimberley for contributing peace and stability to Sierra Leone. UN sanctions, including a diamond embargo on Liberia from May 2001 also contributed to reducing the trade in Sierra Leonean blood diamonds. Charles Taylor was forced back from Sierra Leone and in 2003 was finally removed from power into exile in Nigeria and in March 2006 he was extradited to Liberia, and handed over to the Sierra Leone Special Court.

Thankfully today blood diamonds are almost extinct. Only in Côte d'Ivoire do you still have a UN diamond embargo on exports because rebels control diamond mines. The Sierra Leone Special Court trial of Charles Taylor trial in The Hague reminds us that diamonds are not just symbols of love and beauty, but are valuable commodities that can in the wrong hands fund conflict. Because of Sierra Leone, we have the Kimberley global certification system for diamonds. It is not perfect, but the industry is in better shape than in the late 1990s, when brutal rebels in Sierra Leone and Angola funded their actions from sales of diamonds to dealers based in Antwerp, London, Dubai, Tel Aviv and Mumbai.

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This article was originally written for Channel4.com