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Environment

Fight against blood diamonds can't be forgotten, campaigner says

Blood diamonds continue to fuel conflicts around the world, but it's taken a splash of celebrity for the global community to take note, says Global Witness campaigner Elly Harrowell.

Men stand on the riverbank holding large pans

Miners pan for diamonds in northeastern Sierra Leone

The war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor in The Hague is expected to take a glamorous turn with British supermodel Naomi Campbell scheduled to testify Thursday. She's claimed that Taylor gave her a large, rough diamond at a dinner party in South Africa in 1997. That diamond is allegedly linked to the civil war in Sierra Leone. Taylor stands accused of arming rebels in return for illegally mined diamonds.

Elly Harrowell is a campaigner at the London-based organization Global Witness, which investigates and publicizes links between the exploitation of natural resources and conflict and corruption. She spoke to Deutsche Welle about why blood diamonds are still a pressing issue and why it has taken a celebrity for the world to pay attention.

Deutsche Welle: Has Naomi Campbell's scheduled appearance in Charles Taylor's trial next week helped refocus global attention on conflict or blood diamonds?

Elly Harrowell: Yes absolutely, I think it's a little sad in a way that we need the input of a celebrity such as Naomi Campbell in order to focus people's minds on the issue of conflict diamonds. But what it has done that is quite positive is get people talking about an issue that many people seem to think has fallen away in recent years. The question of conflict diamonds is still very much a live question, one that continues to rear its ugly head in a number of places. So I'm certainly glad that this is back on the front pages, so that we can keep pushing to find a resolution to the problem.

Campaigners like your group have been trying over the years to keep this issue alive, why do you think it keeps slipping off the radar?

A photo Charles Taylor next to a photo of Naomi Campbell

Supermodel Naomi Campbell (right) is set to testify at the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor

I think there have been a few relatively quiet years in terms of conflict diamonds. After the horrific wars that we saw in west Africa, in Angola as well, that brought conflict diamonds to the fore. After they had ended, there weren't quite so many real classic conflict diamond wars in the news anymore, that is until the issue of Zimbabwe came to the forefront in the last couple of years where we've seen, unfortunately once again, quite horrific violence associated with the diamond trade.

There's also the question of the Cote d'Ivoire. Cote d'Ivoire remains the only country in the world whose diamonds are under UN sanctions at the moment. That's because they had a long rebel war where the north and south of the country were split, and in effect all of the diamond-producing areas are found in the north of the country, and under the control of the groups. Elsewhere, there are still concerns, and we hear periodic reports of human rights abuses in the diamond trade in, for example, Angola, and we also have countries such as Venezuela where the implementation of the Kimberley Process is very weak and problematic and we see real rampant diamond smuggling.

The Kimberley Process is a system that participating countries have signed up to trace the diamond from the mine to the polishing stage. This has to do with rough diamonds of course. Where are we at currently in this process?

The Kimberley Process has been enforced since 2003, so it's had seven years now to prove its worth. I think it's fair to say that it's had a few achievements. The existence of the Kimberley Process is in itself an achievement. It was quite pioneering in the way that it brought together governments, industry and civil society to work together to address the issue of conflict diamonds, and in some of the countries where we saw real conflict diamond problems, the Kimberley Process has helped to push up official diamond revenue, which takes the revenue out of the hands of armed groups and into the state coffers and pushes development.

A hand is shown sorting small diamonds

Kimberley Process regulators recently allowed Zimbabwe to resume some diamond exports

So it does have a lot of potential to do good and to prevent conflict diamond issues, however it's not really achieving that full potential at the moment. We've talked about some of the problem cases that still exist - in Venezuela, Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe - and there's also a real need for the Kimberley Process to be reformed, in order that it can really effectively face some of the challenges it faces today.

Global Witness has been calling for increased supervision of the industry by governments in participating countries. Is that part of the reforms you were referring to?

It is, there's a number of reforms we think are really quite crucial. For example, we think the Kimberley Process should reiterate and strengthen its commitment to protecting human rights. We feel that's really at the heart of the Kimberley Process, the reason we set it up in the first place was to protect from harm those communities involved in diamond mining. We also think that governments and industry should agree to set up some sort of secretariat for the KP. You might be quite surprised to know that we're talking about a system that brings together 75 countries and yet it doesn't have a permanent secretariat yet. It doesn't have one dollar of funding. And there are other issues that we feel really need to be reformed, such as improving the decision-making process, set a defining standard, improving the practices on peer review and so on at the heart of the KP - all of these reforms will need governments to stand up and be counted in order to be implemented.

Blood diamonds or conflict diamonds - the term generally refers to diamonds that are used to fuel conflicts, even fund conflicts - and sounds quite dramatic. Give us some sense of exactly the nature of oppression or violence that's unleashed on people who are caught up in these sorts of situations.

A small Sierra Leone boy whose arm has been amputated and a girl who has lost both hands

Thousands in Sierra Leone suffered amputations during the country's civil war

Well you've taken a very interesting question here actually, because the definition of conflict diamonds themselves can be quite problematic. The classical definition that the Kimberley Process uses is diamonds that are used by rebel groups to fuel armed conflicts against legitimate governments. That's the kind of thing we saw for example in Sierra Leone, where rebel groups were forcing local communities to mine for diamonds in order to buy more arms. We saw terrible abuse against local people: murders, amputations and so on. The issues we're seeing today, for example in Zimbabwe, are slightly different because here we're talking not about rebel groups forcing people to mine and abusing people but actually government groups, the armed forces, even police, who are committing many of the same acts: forced labor, rape, murder, beatings of local people, but this time not by a rebel group but by a recognized government force.

Which leads us back to the Charles Taylor trial. Some experts have said that the scope of this trial goes far beyond the Taylor case itself and the appearance or not of a star like Naomi Campbell, but it takes us to the issue of heads of state abusing their citizens, and that these leaders could later find themselves in the dock over the issue.

Yes, absolutely. I think that the Charles Taylor trial is quite trailblazing in this way, it will send a message - a very strong message - to leaders of countries that, actually, this kind of behavior will not be tolerated by the international community. That we will come after them, as it were, to hold them accountable for any abuse committed against their citizens. And I think that's a very positive and strong message to be sending out at this time.

Interview: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam (skt)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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