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Crisis in the Central African Republic: Are Diamonds to Blame?

Rebel soldier in the Central African Republic

We’re alarmed by news reports that rebel soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) are close to taking over the country’s capital, Bangui. Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes, and the U.S. Embassy evacuated its personnel yesterday.

 

Any time a civil conflict breaks out in a diamond-rich country such as the CAR, we are sensitive to the possibility that diamond mining may worsen the bloodshed. In too many countries, diamond mining has contributed to bloody civil wars. In this case, is there reason to believe that the rebels are being financed by diamonds?

 

Unfortunately, yes. The International Crisis Group has documented how, in recent years, diamond mining has been a major funding source for the various rebel groups opposed to the central government. The problem briefly made headlines in 2011, when clashes between rebels over diamond-rich territory near the town of Bria led to the death of 50 people.

 

According to the latest reports, the rebels have now formed a loose alliance and together control a large part of the country, including Bria and the diamond-rich areas around it. All of this, we think, raises questions about the role of diamonds in the current crisis, and whether diamonds will help finance it going forward.

 

So what should be done? Should the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, ban diamonds from the CAR?

 

It may need to. To be sure, the causes of the conflict in the CAR are complex and go beyond diamonds. Ethnic tensions, poverty, and disastrous leadership have all contributed to political instability.  In 2003, the country’s president, François Bozizé, took power in a coup. He has since prioritized the interests of his own ethnic group and failed to make life better for the majority of his country’s people.

 

That said, we think the issue of conflict diamonds in the CAR deserves much greater priority. When diamond-related violence broke out in the CAR in 2011, the Kimberley Process did little except issue a call for “vigilance” in the diamond industry to avoid diamonds from Bria. This time, the Kimberley Process needs to study the situation more carefully and be ready to enact a diamond ban, especially if that could save lives or prevent an escalation of the conflict.

 

On the other hand, a Kimberley Process diamond ban isn’t the only possible international response to the problem of conflict diamonds in the CAR. The earliest the Kimberley Process could enact a ban would be at its next meeting in mid-2013. Even if it did ban diamonds from the CAR, that ban would be porous, as the Kimberley Process is easily evaded by smuggling.

 

What is also needed, we think, is a more substantial effort over the long term to address some of the root causes of the violence, including the persistence of poverty in diamond mining areas of the CAR. An estimated 100,000 people in the CAR work as artisanal diamond miners, using simple methods to mine for diamonds like digging small pits. Most of them live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day.

 

Promising new approaches, such as a development diamond initiative receiving funding from Brilliant Earth, could potentially lead to greater fairness for these miners and create the conditions for lasting peace. In addition, whenever more stability returns to the CAR, the international community needs to work more closely with its government to try to improve regulation of its diamond mining sector. Better regulation could reduce exploitation of diamond diggers and possibly improve their earnings.

 

For the moment, though, we are watching this crisis unfold. We hope it ends without significant bloodshed and that there will soon be a chance to build a fairer, more transparent, and more ethical diamond industry in the CAR.

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