Unprecedented Council Hearings on Diamonds

Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh chaired unprecedented two-day hearings on the role of diamonds in conflicts, with the focus on Sierra Leone. Last month, the Security Council imposed an 18-month ban on trade in diamonds from that war-torn West African country unless they come from government-controlled sources (resolution 1306 of 5 July).

The Security Council Sanctions Committee hearings were held on 31 July and 1 August. It was an open meeting - to the extent feasible in the Council. Chowdhury has been a consistent advocate of open Council meetings to allow transparent coverage by the media and valuable participation by authoritative personalities.

The participants included interested States, international and regional organizations, diamond trader associations and individuals with relevant expertise. While Permanent Representatives reflected their Governments' policies, others expressed varied views - some with a business angle, others with a cynical eye.

Serious charges were levelled against the Presidents of Liberia and Burkina Faso, Charles Taylor and Blaise Compaore, accusing them of taking personal roles in trading arms to Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for smuggled diamonds - the rebels' main revenue source - which in turn had helped fuel the civil war. The two Presidents had done so, some charged, to preserve their own access to Sierra Leone's diamond wealth. Diplomats from the two countries vigorously denied the allegations, and demanded that hard evidence be presented.

One proposal under consideration to stem the arms-for-diamonds trade would be to establish a global certification procedure to brand diamonds in order to identify their provenance, or origin. Resolution 1306 allows an 18-month period to establish a reliable certificate of origin system, one in which digital photographs of diamonds would accompany a relevant certificate of origin.

However, the proposal for a forgery-proof system to certify that diamonds for sale were "legal", was greeted with scepticism. There are those who say that no matter what measures are taken, professional smugglers will always find ways to trade gems for guns.

Ambassador Chowdhury told the press that it had emerged from the hearings that the broader international community was now ready and willing to participate in any control regime or certification procedure which the Council might establish. The diamond industry, civil society, Governments and individuals all believed that such a global regime was necessary to get rid of conflict diamonds. A five-member panel of experts had been selected to explore the issues relating to Sierra Leone diamonds in detail. Chowdhury said the Committee would prepare a report containing recommendations on how best to establish a "sustainable and well-regulated" diamond industry in Sierra Leone that would end the illicit trade. The report would also reflect the allegations made against Liberia and Burkina Faso. The Committee would look into the matter, as well as examine all of the points that had emerged. Questioned about a reluctance to impose sanctions on the Liberian President, given the prominent role he had played in freeing UN peacekeepers held hostage, Chowdhury said the Council had to be "100 per cent sure" of the facts before taking decisions of this nature.

Some veteran observers noted that, beyond a certain point, one has to watch out where politics end and business begins. Others wondered how did the situation deteriorate to such a mess. For example, did not some of those taking rhetorical stands help place Mr. Foday Sankoh, during the ceasefire arrangements, in a position to control the diamonds in the first place? Who imposed on President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah that agreement?

As for sanctions on Sierra Leone diamonds, some wonder whether that country has not suffered enough human disasters to now impose on it - and other small countries - a commercial disaster with embargoes on its only exportable item. How could some sources request Liberia's Charles Taylor to help diffuse tensions and save UN soldiers, and then single him out for verbal attack and threats of sanctions? What's the real story?

Such questions, and many others from all sides, prove the value of the Council hearings - a bold initiative by Ambassador Chowdhury.