Celebrating Diamond Sanctions

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
March 14, 2001

After months of threats, the UN Security Council finally slapped Liberia with a regime of sanctions that has sent Charles Taylor and his joyful inner circle celebrating. His Foreign Minister, the Syrian Monie Captan, said the sanctions are not as bad as expected. But he sent an indirect indication to the UN not to expect too much after the 2-months grace period given to comply or face punishment:

"It would be unfair to the Liberian government and people, if at the end of the 60 days, someone will sit in New York and say, 'You haven't complied,"' he said. As far as the Liberian diamond operatives are concerned, by issuing statements of grounding aircrafts and closing down rebel RUF offices, they have already complied.

Their celebrations are justified for a number of reasons. The Liberian diamond peddlers are convinced of the gravity of their crimes, thus happy over the magnanimous UN reprimands. They have been stealing Sierra Leone diamonds for years, and lying about this plunder which has sent the West African nation in terror as thousands of amputated people roam and refuges mount. They have lied that Liberia has more diamonds than imagined, even pointing to the alleged abundance of diamonds on the grounds of the presidential palace and around the derelict city. Yet, when told they can no longer market these little stones which have brought in millions of dollars, and which they claim are key to their criminal economy, they laughed and laughed. They laughed because they have no diamonds to market, only those brought to them by Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for arms and drugs. Diamonds simply do not feature significantly in Liberia's economy, never before, never now. So they looked at the Security Council and laughed since the little stones can be smuggled to third party friendly states within the region in a variety of ways. This is the ring of criminal conspiracy involving Ghanaians, Ivorians, Malians, etc., well noted in the UN Panel of Experts Report.

But even this symbolic UN gesture against Taylor and company has been a hectic battle. Getting the UN to impose sanctions, however feeble, has been a nightmare. Despite the cordial ties between Britain Tony Blair and former President Bill Clinton, convincing the US to see reason in outlawing so-called Liberian diamonds has taken over a year. With Clinton confidantes and Taylor backers like the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the helms, Britain was basically left alone. Clinton's Washington was prepared to ban illegal Sierra Leone diamonds, but left Liberian diamonds alone. Nevertheless, even this gesture brought positive indicators for Freetown with reports that country gained US10m last year compared to US1.5m when Taylor was free to steal their stones. Leaving the diamond corridors comfortably open for Taylor and his criminal entourage to intensified their looting spree. And when the Lome Agreement, drafted by Taylor and marketed by Jesse Jackson, finally endorsed the rebels' ownership of the mines in the illusions that they would disarm, Taylor and company again laughed. Diamonds conglomerates opened offices in Monrovia, not in Freetown. The UN, by restricting Sierra Leone diamonds and leaving imaginary Liberian diamonds alone, had given its blessings for Freetown's diamonds to be sold in Liberia.

Sure, London's original text of the resolution on Sierra Leone's diamond included a ban on sales from Liberia. This was logical, since up to 95 per cent of Sierra Leone's illegally mined diamonds are exported with the complicity of senior Liberian officials, according to the BBC. But Britain was forced to withdraw the reference to Liberia after the US refused to accept it, the BBC quoted a diplomat as confirming. Taylor's diamond-paid PR machine was in full swing.

It took over a year for an American change of mind. Better late than never. But by then, thousands of Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans have been killed, amputated, or displaced. When the sanctions against "Liberian diamonds" finally came, they obviously sent Taylor dancing, and again for a number of reasons. If this non-existing product is banned, there are many ways of circumventing the restrictions once the source is kept under control. With the rebel RUF still in charge of the mines, why worry? There is no diamond ban on friendly Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cote D'Ivoire. The stones can be ferried to these countries and sold to the usual buyers. The ban has been anticipated for a long time. Good criminals know how to spot ominous signs, and as the song goes, every gambler knows the secret of survival and when to count his money. So Taylor and his team have been preparing for alternatives. For example, the diamond firm Oppenheimer, said to effectively hold 45% of a delisted giant De Beers, was registered in Taylor's household until very recently. Just why would such a company be operating from and in Liberia, a country with no significant diamond deposits, is an answer that must be found in the structure of criminal enterprises that rule the world and its politics.

Celebrations over the sanctions clearly indicate the limited scope of diamonds in Liberia's conventional crumbling criminal economy. Countries like South Africa, Botswana, or Sierra Leone, relying on legitimate diamonds for their national economies, would have been in uproar if the stones had been outlawed? Liberia's celebration is as if Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, etc., would celebrate if their coffee and cocoa, primary products in their economy and therefore key to their survival, are banned. But Liberia is celebrating because it has nothing to lose. Its leaders will shift tactics, have shifted tactics. The crucial factor is that the RUF and the Liberian rebels remain in charge of the diamond mines. This is the test of how long the celebrations will last.

On the other hand, Taylor's mortal fear was the UN's implementation of the threat to ban Liberian timber, and his partners in France along with the Chinese ensured the defeat of the more damaging timber ban. Apart from timber being the conduit for shipping arms into the country for distribution within West Africa, it is one of the only few foreign exchange earners for Taylor, his family and cronies, accounting for about 30% of his budget. Earnings from timber keep his personal guards in line and finance his lavish life-style. Many of his security personnel, including mercenaries and foreign military advisers, are on the payroll of timber companies, according to Monrovia sources. To ensure that proceeds are monitored for family and other use, his brother is tightly in charge. Shady companies like the Malaysian-owned Oriental Timber Company pay no taxes. A letter written by one of the company's operatives clearly stated that in place of paying taxes, they only had to buy trucks for the President brother in charge of depleting the forests. Observes The Washington Post:

"Known locally as the president's ''peppertree'' or personal source of wealth - Liberians joke that the company's initials stand for ''Only Taylor Chops' " The Washington Post reports, "OTC controls and operates the port of Buchanan, the nation's main port, and employs virtually no Liberians. ''We usually log 4 percent of our concession a year, making it last 25 years,'' said one veteran logger here. ''OTC is taking out as much as they can as quickly as they can, with no regard for the size of the trees. It is rape.''

But Taylor has two months to convince the Security Council, primarily Britain and Washington, that his marriage with the rebel diamond diggers has ended. What can we expect?

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, says "The council demands no diamonds be exported until President Taylor has fully met the requirements of the resolution we just passed," he said. Mr. Cunningham said that the initial African reluctance to support new sanctions on Liberia was a "tactical difference" with the council, not opposition to the move.

"We've had a long discussion with them about what the best tactic is here - whether to just give him time and see what happens or whether it's better to put this sword into place and use that as extra leverage," he said of regional African leaders. "We think this actually increases ECOWAS' leverage to work with Taylor because there is now something specific in place that will happen if there isn't a

One can only hope so, for ECOWAS itself is nothing to be proud of based on their past performance and current alliances. In the meantime, Taylor and his diamond comrades are dancing. They consider the sanctions a victory. Why not?

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