Diamonds vs. US National Security

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
Jan 17, 2001

The justification for US inaction during the Liberian war was that the country, which it founded as home for its freed slaves back in 1822 and became one of its most reliable allies during the Cold War, had lost its place in US National Security considerations. Since the Soviet threat had been removed, the usefulness of such client states as Liberia was equally removed. But all that may be changing, thanks to the "ingenuity" of Charles Taylor and other diamond rebel leaders around Africa, including Unita's Jonas Savimbi. The Americans have realized that the horrors of illicit diamonds indeed constitute threats to their national security and this means a lot.

"The United States sees the trade in conflict diamonds as a genuine and important national security problem -- one that we are determined to fight, " said outgoing US National Security Council Advisor Samuel Berger during a recent international conference on conflict diamonds held at the White House. "We take the issue of conflict diamonds deadly serious" because "these precious gems, when illicitly traded, quite literally can become the instruments of death", he added.

The American National Security Advisor noted that the illegal trade in diamonds "by insurgent groups in Africa presents an ugly threat to that continent's security and is forcing us all to rethink" the economic dimensions of these conflicts. Berger further told his audience, among them international scientists and diamond experts, that the stones were "fueling instability in Angola [and] Sierra Leone and escalating the fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [Kinshasa].

Here we find a new and emerging doctrine in US Policy towards Africa, except that Berger and his boss Bill Clinton will soon be out and their successors, who have already declared their disinterest in Africa, may unfortunately not buy Berger's definition of what constitutes US national security interests.

But diamonds as threats to US national security is refreshing twists against Africa's emerging diamond warlords operating under the cover of sovereign states. When national sovereignty is used as an alibi for building criminal schemes endangering the security of other states, as is the case with Sierra Leone and now Guinea, Berger's new national security doctrine becomes humane in seeing the limits of sovereignty and legitimacy of governments relying on transnational criminal syndicates for survival. In this, the flag and the national anthem became indicting elements, even for a country that carries the "distinction" of Africa's oldest republic.

Berger's new doctrine takes us back to the era when the US tied its national security to the defeat of Communism, be it independent Marxist oriented liberation fighters in Asia, Latin America or Africa. For example, US alliance with Angola's Savimbi, now listed as a possible candidate posing threats to US national security since he is one of the kingpins of illicit diamonds, was based on American national security interests perceivably threatened by the MPLA. Few in successive American administrations doubted if zealous African idealists asking a dead German (Karl Marx) how to put bread on the table for their hungry mass posed any real threat to US or any country's national security. But in the wisdom of the time, departure from the concepts of Western politics or economics was equivalent to terrorism. Now, the real terrorists, knowing and obeying no national borders and lacking any political agenda except one linked to personal wealth, waging wars on those who opposed the acquisition of such wealth, are multiplying. Thus the positive aspect of this new definition of US national security is that it may help to counter the diamond warlords in building poverty states. Contrary to the past protests against such doctrines, millions of Africans languishing in refugee camps and fleeing from drugged rebels at the service of international criminal diamond dealers can only rejoice if their security is linked to US security. Once this is done, tangible solutions will emerge.

The convergence of criminals in weak states like Liberia and DRC, armed with millions of dollars earned through illicit diamonds, is pregnant with ghastly implications. Operating under cover of legitimate governments and blessed with protection of nation-states, international criminals can operate with ease, even infiltrating the hearts of wealthy industrial states and causing havoc. With the almighty dollar as a companion, allies are not in short supply.

The disintegration of weak states, as is now the case in DRC, Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone, places short and long-term burdens on others with severe implications. The new UNHCR High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, hinted this recently when he warned the international community that ignoring the unending refugee crisis in Africa would be a serious mistake. He said when necessary, military actions should be taken to deal with wars producing infinite numbers of refugees and the displaced. "Countries and peoples are more and more connected to each other, through trade and investment and what have you, but there is a downside to all this," he said. "We will pay an enormous bill if we neglect the problem", the Dutchman, a former Prime Minister of one of the most relief and development generous countries (The Netherlands), warned

With political leaders more at the service of international criminal syndicates, including arms dealers and smugglers, whole societies are being wiped out and poverty imposed. US National Security Council Senior Director for African Affairs Gayle Smith noted this when she referred to Liberia's President Charles Taylor as a "dangerous trend" in the rise of unprincipled African leaders who see the use of illegal diamonds as a mechanism to impose themselves on their nations and "keep the rest of the citizenry down. It is an emphasis on individual wealth over the fight against poverty, and it is an expansion of the trade network... that links diamonds with arms."

In many cases around Africa, sovereignty now means the right to institute policies destructive and harmful to other societies. Berger emphasized the fact that diamonds have, "paid for the weapons that mutilated the children of Sierra Leone. They are fueling the refugee crises in these countries -- over three and a half million people have been displaced in Angola alone, and another 300,000 have fled to neighboring countries."

He added that, "The cost is also borne by those who play by the rules of international commerce. The legitimate diamond trade of some of Africa's emerging democracies now is threatened by the possibility, indeed I would say the likelihood of consumer boycotts and legislative sanctions aimed at the illicit traffic."

State structures, such as licensing of ships and aircrafts, at the disposal of criminals, and the incapacity of such states to tackle catastrophes affecting other states, were noted in the recent UN Panel of Experts report on war and diamonds in Sierra Leone:

"Guerrilla armies receive weapons through interlinked networks of traders, criminals and insurgents moving across borders. Arms also travel from one unstable zone to another, and rebel movements or criminal gangs in one country sell their arms to groups they are aligned with elsewhere. In other instances governments may see opportunities for their own regional ambitions in West Africa, supplying rebel groups with weapons in order to further these ambitions.
"Systematic information on weapons-smuggling in the region is non-existent, and information which could be used to combat the problem on a regional scale - through ECOWAS or through bilateral exchanges - is generally not available. Few states in the region have the resources or the infrastructure to tackle smuggling, a situation that creates opportunities for the smuggling of weapons across all major borders in the region.

" Officials acknowledge the existence of a large, and largely uncontrolled informal weapons trade and outright illicit trafficking. The extent of such practices, far beyond normal levels of informal trade, aggravate corruption and criminalisation throughout the region"

The UN Panel similarly listed a number of transnational actors, based in Monrovia, and fuelling the current wars in West Africa. They include Ukrainians, Dutchmen, Afrikaners, other Africans from across the continent. False documentation of registration documents, illegal practices by nation-states under the cover sovereignty are tools useful in terrorist schemes.

Jim Fisher-Thompson, writing for Washington File, noted that " Eli Izhakoff, chairman of the World Diamond Council, which was established last year by worldwide diamond industry leaders, told the meeting that the council believes "the curse of conflict diamonds can be lifted only if all concerned parties commit themselves to finding a practical, coordinated solution" to the problem. With that in mind, he said, a member of the council and a large player in the industry, the Belgium Diamond High Council, has "already implemented workable certification regimes in Angola and Sierra Leone, which have been instrumental in providing a blueprint for any future global certification program."

One can only hope that Berger's doctrine will be advanced by his successors. Unfortunately, his prescriptions came too late, only after tens of thousands of children in Sierra Leone have been amputated, others drugged to fight in diamonds wars. But better late than never. In this increasingly dwindling global village, one man's rights could mean another nation's death.