In the annals of blood diamonds, few men have compiled a more horrific record than former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The warlord turned president used diamonds to instigate a bloody civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone that endured for 11 years. It is estimated that Taylor bears responsibility for the murder, rape, maiming, and mutilation of over 1.2 million people.
So it was welcome news last week when an international criminal court convicted Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The historic verdict represents a victory for the international criminal justice system, a measure of justice for Taylor’s victims, and a symbolic moment in the fight against blood diamonds.
The Taylor case has drawn a good deal of international attention, not in the least because a key witness in the trial was supermodel Naomi Campbell, to whom Taylor once gave a blood diamond. Last week, his conviction became a top international news story. With Taylor’s conviction still in the public spotlight, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the severity of his crimes and to remember the role of diamonds in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
Taylor was a rebel warlord in Liberia in 1991 when he began offering strategic support to rebels in Sierra Leone. After he became president of Liberia in 1997, he continued to provide this support – mainly by supplying the rebels with weapons in exchange for their diamonds. The diamond trade helped Taylor grow to rich and to win power and influence over the rebels. Diamonds, in turn, helped convert Sierra Leone into a bloodbath, as rebels fought to control Sierra Leone’s valuable alluvial diamond deposits.
The atrocities committed by the rebels — many of which are depicted in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond – shocked the world. With backing and direction from Taylor, the rebels murdered, tortured, and raped. They kidnapped young boys, drugged them, and forced them to become child soldiers. The rebels also mutilated their enemies, hacking off limbs and cutting off the hands of people who voted in UN-sponsored elections.
The war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002. With the war now over for a decade and Taylor convicted, it’s important that this history isn’t forgotten – out of respect for the war’s victims but also for the lessons that can be learned.
One of those lessons is that it takes individuals, and perhaps a madman like Charles Taylor, to ignite civil wars and violence. But another interpretation is that underlying systemic factors – ranging from grinding poverty to inadequate regulation of natural resources such as diamonds – also play a major role.
Today, blood diamonds continue to be a reality in countries including Zimbabwe, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In thinking about how to break the link between diamonds and violence, it’s important to consider the problem at both the individual and systemic levels.
At the individual level, wrongdoers need to be prosecuted for their diamond-related crimes. In Angola, human right advocate Rafael Marques de Morais has filed a promising lawsuit against the country’s military generals for their campaign of violence against artisanal diamond miners. This lawsuit is encouraging, but the individual who may be most deserving of criminal prosecution – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – is still at large and in power. Mugabe and his top generals are responsible for massacring hundreds of diamond miners, torturing and enslaving others, stealing Zimbabwe’s diamond wealth, and other serious crimes. They should be held accountable.
At the same time, criminal prosecutions can only do so much to combat blood diamonds or build an ethical diamond trade. Progress in combating blood diamonds cannot take place without systemic change in the diamond industry and in diamond-producing countries. At Brilliant Earth, we strive to bring about this change by raising awareness about blood diamonds, by supporting meaningful diamond industry reform efforts, and by directly donating a portion of our profits to communities negatively impacted by the diamond trade.