Conflict Diamonds in West Africa


Nicholas S. Briggs


Autumn 2003

December 5, 2003





"Diamonds are forever" it is often said. But lives are not.
We must spare people the ordeal of war, mutilations and death for the sake of conflict diamonds."

-         Martin Chungong Ayafor, Chairman of the Sierra Leone Panel of Experts



                In the Western world we are used to associating the word “diamond” with elegance, happiness and beauty.  Few Westerners know anything of the spectrum of meaning that the precious stone has for various people of the world.  The diamond industry has always had the potential for greatness – a nation blessed with natural deposits of this rare gem could benefit greatly from selling the stones to the world market, and then use the profits to maintain peace, stability, and a more comfortable life for its people.  But unfortunately the discovery of diamond deposits has not always led to instances of great happiness and success.  On the contrary, regions of the world plagued by civil unrest and war have often used this resource to fund destructive endeavors.  In particular, diamonds in West Africa have been used for the last 30 or so years to fund rebel groups and their desire to take control of their nations by violence and intimidation.  In such conflicted regions of the world, diamonds lose their connotation of beauty and elegance and are in stead stained with blood.  In this paper, I discuss the many ways in which “conflict diamond” has brought nothing but poverty, suffering and war to the West African people.  I explain what world organizations such as the UN have done in order to counteract the adverse effects of the conflict diamond on the African community, and the extent to which such efforts have been successful. 

Banning Conflict Diamonds

What exactly is a conflict diamond?

            The United Nations has defined the term conflict diamond as follows:

Conflict diamonds are diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.


How can one distinguish between a conflict diamond and a legitimate diamond?

            Diamonds are identified by a Certificate of Origin.  If a strong system is in place to ensure that only those diamonds whose certificates indicate that they came from legitimate, government-controlled areas will reach the world market, then the profitability of conflict diamonds will dwindle.  Such a system would need to be supported by each participant in the trade to be effective, and could require the standardization of the certificate of origin amongst the various exporting countries to help ensure that only legitimate diamonds get through, as well as the development of legislation that will give a protocol for how to deal with participants who fail to comply. 

A history of conflict diamonds in West Africa

Sierra Leone

            Sierra Leone, originally a British Colony, mined diamonds legitimately and profitably until its Independence in 1961.  It was first mined in 1935 by De Beers, which had a 99-year contract granting it full control of all mining operations.  After Sierra Leone’s independence, a series of corrupt leaders used the diamond trade purely to help them manipulate their people, bring riches to the ruling factions, and buy weaponry to arm those in power against those that might oppose them.  Mines were nationalized at this time, prompting the departure of De Beers.  On March 23, 1991, a rebel group known

Sierra Leone


as the Revolutionary United Front, noticing the weakness of the national government, too up arms and gained control of eastern Sierra Leone.  Over the course of the next 11 years, the RUF, under the leadership of Foday Sankoh, was able to snatch up 90% of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry, which it used to generate funds to illegally smuggle in arms and fuel the war effort. 

Foday Sankoh

While Sankoh had promised to the wealth of the diamond industry back to the people, he in stead sent his troops out top hurt innocent people, and sited this as an example of the government’s inability to protect them.  Throughout this time the RUF was notorious for its utter disregard for human rights and for its barbarity.  Despite a brief period of peace in 2000, the opposing factions were at war again within 6 months and it was not until January of 2002 that British, UN and Guinean forces entered into the conflict and brought the long bloody war to an end. 



            Liberia started as a colony of African American slaves who wished to liberate themselves from slavery in the United States.  From its independence in 1847 through the first half of the 20th century, it was supported by the United States, and served as an exemplar of peace, stability, democracy, and social equality in a third-world country.  This era of stability ended abruptly in 1979 when massive demonstration and riots over the increased price of rice allowed Liberian Army officer Samuel Doe to overthrow the government, execute all high-ranking officials, and proclaim himself dictator of Liberia.  Doe’s regime lasted until 1990 when he was overthrown and executed by rebel groups.  For the next 6 years, various rebel groups fought intensely for control until West African peacekeeping forces finally came in late 1996 to disarm the rebels and bring peace to the war-torn nation.  Charles Taylor, leader of the strongest rebel group (the NPFL), was elected president. 


Charles Taylor                                                Liberia

Meanwhile the RUF in neighboring Sierra Leone and their atrocities were attracting the attention of the rest of the world, causing the UN to ban the export of diamonds from Sierra Leone. The RUF, with Taylor’s support, then began channeling its diamonds through Liberia, in exchange for arms.  When Liberia’s role in the illicit trade was discovered, the UN placed an embargo on the trade of guns-for-diamonds.  Taylor was subsequently indicted for war crimes.  Despite the embargo, however, illicit trade of arms and diamonds continued in Liberia.  This illegal trade was recently linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, as it is believed that Liberia allowed the network to safely convert its funds to diamonds. 



            Angola had been a colony of Portugal for over 500 years before its people started to push for independence.  By the 50’s and 60’s, the Angolan people were tired of being exploited and three rebel groups formed to try to kick the Portuguese out: the Soviet-backed MPLA, the U.S.-backed FNLA, and the UNITA.  These groups fought side-by-side between 1961 and 1974, but then turned on each other when independence was declared in 1976.  From then all the way up to 1991, the battle for control of Angola became an extension of the Cold War between the United States and the Communist Soviet Union, as the U.S., fearing that Angola would become Communist, sent large sums of money into Angola to support the UNITA and FNLA.  Meanwhile the Soviet Union funded the MPLA and Cuba even sent rebel groups to help this rebel group.  In the late 80’s when the Cold War was coming to an end, the MPLA and UNITA turned to oil and diamonds, respectively, to fund the war effort.  Thus the nature of the war had transformed into oil against diamonds.  In the beginning, UNITA, under the leadership of Dr. Jonas Savimbi, took the upper hand as Savimbi turned the UNITA into the largest diamond-smuggling operation in history, all in exchange for arms. 


In 1992, Angola held its first presidential elections, which fell to MPLA leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos.  Unwilling to concede defeat, Savimbi led his 60,000-strong UNITA army into battle with the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA).  Savimbi was able to gain control of 70% of the nation by 1993, but at the cost of Angola’s GNP, central infrastructure, and 300,000 lives between 1992 and 1995.  The MPLA was able to fight back, and in 1994, the Lusaka Protocol brought peace until 1998.  But by then Savimbi had re-stockpiled his arsenal and led another attack against the MPLA.  This time the force of Savimbi’s attack left cities in ruins, and it was estimated that 200 people died each day by the middle of 1999.  In early 2000 the Angolan government sold rights to its oil reserves to western companies and took away enough money that it was able to regain 92% of the country.  From that point on, Savimbi’s power dwindled right up until he was shot in 2002.  From that point on, UNITA would disarm and assume the role of an opposition party rather than a hostile force. 


Reasons to stop the trade of conflict diamonds

Conflict diamonds fuel civil wars

            One of the main problems presented by conflict diamonds has been the use of conflict diamonds by rebel forces to purchase arms and facilitate other illegal activities.  These forces will often smuggle their diamonds through and trade their diamonds in neighboring countries.  In doing so, they make it quite difficult for others to trace the origin of these diamonds once they hit the market.  And as the rough diamonds are polished, it is no longer possible to trace them back to their source, and they can therefore no longer be distinguished from legitimate diamonds. 

            If such diamonds can be prevented from reaching the world market, then ultimate peace could ensue, and the impoverished African nations ravished by such civil war could finally have the chance to develop.  This is because without conflict diamonds funding their efforts, rebel groups will begin to lose their power in these spheres and wars will come to and end have resurface not as often.  Also with an ushering in of peace, local governments would finally have the chance to gain revenue from a state-run mining venture that would help such nations develop and obtain a higher quality of life for its people. 

RUF troops

            The international diamond community has made efforts to help stop the spread of conflicts diamonds by passing a resolution at the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp, July 19, 2000, that has bolstered the diamond industry’s ability to bloc such diamonds.  The resolution imposed what is called the Kimberly Process, an initiative that established a worldwide council that consults diamond producing countries, industry and civil society on how to deal with conflict diamonds.  The ultimate goal of the Kimberly process is to set in place a certification process for all rough diamonds – certificates of origin would be placed with all rough diamonds in sealed boxes, and be transported as such from their countries of origin to their final destination.  If adopted, the Kimberly Process would ensure that any diamonds from any conflicted area would never make it to the world market. 


Conflict diamonds lead to human suffering

            The civil wars that have spanned the last few decades in West Africa have taken their toll one the native peoples in this region.  In the Angolan capital of Luanda, thousands of children have been forced onto the streets as a result of the war and poverty.  An estimated 500 of them are homeless and live in the dangerous streets, struggling to stay alive through beggary and through the help of humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF.  Others live in abandoned buildings or basements.  By 1995, the number of such children reached a staggering number of 10,000 nation-wide, 4,000 of these in the capital city.  A teacher at the National Institute for Children (NAC) based in Luanda says that while homeless children can in large part be attributed to poverty (70 percent of the families in Angola live in absolute poverty), one never saw so many children in the streets before the war in 1992.  The Angolan government, facing a dead economy and hostility from the UNITA forces, has done nothing to alleviate the burden of these suffering children.  Foreign organizations do their best to provide food, clothing and classes for these destitute children, but there are so many of them to accommodate and so little funds available.  Latest efforts have been primarily focused on slowing down the drastic rise in forced child prostitution.  Young girls are lured into prostitution because it brings in more money than any other odd job they could perform.  Others are forced into it by their guardians and sometimes even by relatives. 

            In Sierra Leone during the war from 1991 to 1999, the RUF rebel group performed one atrocity against humanity after another, including hacking off the limbs of innocent civilians and raping women.  Young girls were torn from there families and forced into a form of sexual slavery by the RUF troops.  Others were abducted to perform menial labor, and were threatened with death if they tried to escape.  Of those women and girls that did escape, many of them were infected with sexually transmitted diseases, many were pregnant, and most felt alienated and severely isolated from their communities when they were able to return. 

The RUF harassed not only girls, but would also systematically terrorize civilians, often capturing them to mutilate them.  Encouraged by their leader, RUF rebels would often cut off the hands of civilians whose only means of survival was to use those hands for farming.  In the end, 75,000 lives were lost in this bloody war, and it resulted in as many as 500,000 refugees.  Nearly half of the population of Sierra Leone was in one way or another displaced by the war. 


This seventeen-year-
old lost both hands to rebels’ machetes. Waterloo camp, Sierra Leone, 1998. UNICEF / HQ96-0566 / Giacomo Pirozzi




            The wars of Angola and Sierra Leone also had a sever impact on the male youth and teen populations, as countless boys and teens were handed AK47’s and told to fight for the rebel armies.  Those who did not submit immediately were tortured.  As a result, a high percentage of the wartime casualties could be attributed to the deaths of youth who did not necessarily believe in what they were fighting for, nor even understand what they were fighting for in the first place. 


This UNITA soldier, here awaiting demobilization, was recruited at age 11.
Vila Nova, Angola, 1998. UNICEF / HQ96-008 /
Giacomo Pirozzi



What actions have been taken by the UN to stop the trade of conflict diamonds?

            The following sections discuss what the United Nations Security Council has done to try to abolish the conflict diamond trade and bring peace to West Africa.  The UN has initiated peacekeeping missions throughout the African continent, as indicated by the following map, but we focus our discussion on the western nations of Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

In response to the tragic conflicts brewing in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia – all as a direct result of conflict diamonds – the UN Security Council, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, has imposed sanctions on the rebel groups UNITA of Angola, RUF of Sierra Leone, and more recently against groups in Liberia, which includes a ban on illegal diamonds. 


UN influence in Angola

            In 1992, the United Nations oversaw the national election in Angola in attempt to thwart the UNITA rebel group.  The UNITA subsequently rejected the results of the election, prompting the UN Security Council to act under Chapter VII and adopt Resolution 864 on September 15, 1993.  This resolution created an arms embargo, preventing the import of weapons into Angola.  It also placed sanctions on UNITA petroleum production, another source of UNITA funds, and established a Sanctions Committee comprised of Security Council members, that help ensure that these measures were enforced. 

            In 1994, the Lukasa Protocol was signed, which called for UNITA rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for being granted government positions.  However, the UNITA refused to agree with the terms of the protocol and would not disarm.  The UN Security Council responded with Resolution 1127 in August of 1997, which aimed to hamper the UNITA with mandatory travel sanctions on the senior leaders of the UNITA.  Two more resolutions were passed, Resolution 1173 on June 12, 1998 and Resolution 1176 of June 24, 1998.  These resolutions banned the export of all diamonds from Angola that did not have Certificates of Origin issued by the Angolan government, and imposed further financial sanctions on the UNITA. 

            Despite the UN’s efforts, however, it soon became clear that the UNITA was not going to abide by these resolutions.  More resolutions were passed in May of 1999 and April of 2000 that created and independent Panel of Experts to monitor the actions of the UNITA and document violations of the previous resolutions, through what was called the Monitoring Mechanism.  It was hoped that with this information the UN would better be able to better implement the resolutions so that the UNITA could not sidestep them as they were doing. 


UN influence in Sierra Leone

            In 1998, civil war between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was still ravaging the country.  On June 5, 1998, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1171, which put into effect an arms embargo and imposed travel sanctions on non-government forces.  It was not until July of 1999 that over eight years of brutal civil war between the rebel group RUF and the government of Sierra Leone came to a halt.  With the help of the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the opposing factions signed the Lome Peace Agreement at this time, which called for and end to hostilities, disarmament, and the formation of a united government.  Following the signing of the treaty, the UN Security Council devised the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in October of 1999 to help maintain the peace.  By May of the year 2000, UNAMSIL was the largest peacekeeping force deployed by the United Nations. 

            On July 5, 2000, due to lingering concerns regarding the role of illicit diamonds in fuelling armed conflict, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1306, much like resolution passed 2 years earlier in Angola.  This resolution banned the export of any diamonds from Sierra Leone that were not accompanied by a government-issued Certificate of Origin. 

            On July 31 through August 1 of 2000, the UN Security Council held the first-ever public hearing regarding the conflicts in Sierra Leone in New York.  Attended by representatives from Member States, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, the diamond industry and experts, the hearing revealed the direct link between the trade of conflict diamonds and the purchase of weaponry and other items used by rebel forces.  Participants of the hearing discussed a plan to develop a stable, state-run diamond industry in Sierra Leone.  The day following the hearing, the Secretary General of the UN established a Panel of Experts to help watch over the activities taking place in Sierra Leone and investigate any instances of trade embargo violations.  This included monitoring air traffic over West Africa to catch transgressors trying to smuggle the illicit diamonds out of the country.  This panel was able to report to the UN Security Council on December 19, 2000, with recommendations for how to strengthen the existing resolutions and embargos. 


UN influence in Liberia

            On January 25, 2001, the Security Council met to go over the findings presented by the Panel of Experts regarding Sierra Leone.  It was revealed that the all trade of conflict diamonds by the RUF had been conducted with the permission of and with involvement from the Government of Liberia.  In fact Liberian government officials had been in full support of the RUF high command the whole time.  This led to the signing of Resolution 1343 in March of 2001, which established a Security Council Sanctions Committee, re-implemented an arms embargo, and called for the Panel of Experts to continue to investigate for another 6 months.  The Liberian Government was also warned that if it did not comply with everything imposed by the resolution within two months, action would be taken by other Member States to take and measures necessary to stop the export of rough diamonds from Liberia, even if the diamonds had originated from Liberia in the first place.  Only this way could the Security Council be sure that the RUF was not using Liberia as a middleman to transport conflict diamonds to the world market. 

West Africa today, and a look into the future

            Over the summer of 2003, rebel forces brought the battle against Charles Taylor to the capital city of Monrovia, cutting off the government from the port and thus from its supply.  Taylor was forced to take asylum in Nigeria, and finally stepped down from power on August 11.  American warships filled with marines and Nigerian peacekeeping forces entered the capital city to help get food to the Liberian people, now that Taylor’s regime had come to an end and a peace treaty had been signed.  Now that the war is over in Liberia, however, the country has been so firmly entrenched in the trade of conflict diamonds that it is doubtful that an enduring peace will last in the nation for some time. 

            After western peacekeeping forces brought the insurrections in Sierra Leone to an end in 2002, there was hope that the Kimberly Process could finally be implemented and give rise to a new era of the legal exportation of diamonds.  However with a government that remains unstable, and a list of known loopholes in the rough diamond tracking process, there is still fear that problems may resurface.  The goal now is to establish an infrastructure that could give the country some stability, and a chance to join the ranks of peaceful and prosperous African nations like Botswana.  Experts suggest that Sierra Leone could obtain better self-sufficiency in the world market through loans to buy mining machinery, the creation of mining cooperatives, and strict guidelines for diamond certification. 

            In Angola, President dos Santos had to relinquish some of the regular democratic processes during the war with Savimbi.  Now that Savimbi is no more and the UNITA has been reduced to a political party, however, there is some concern as to why dos Santos has not yet readopted democratic principles.  The country now has a humanitarian crisis on its hand as a result of the war, and such remnants of the war as mine fields still litter the country.  With a new rebel group trying to gain the independence of the northern enclave of Cabinda, the country has yet to truly experience and enduring peace. 


            It may be a long time before we can enter a jewelry store and buy diamonds without thinking to ourselves, did someone die for me to have this diamond?  We can only hope that the United Nations and African peacekeeping forces will continue to monitor the progress of such nations as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola, and will intervene once again if blood should be shed.  Hopefully the United States, now bent on destroying the roots of terrorism, will see the necessity to take part in such future efforts as well. 


1.      “Blood Diamonds”, Jennifer Harvey, EDGE journals

2.      “Blood Diamonds: Conflicts in Sierra Leone”, Eric Johnson, EDGE journals