If governments belonging to the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, need a fresh reminder of why their definition of “conflict diamond” is so outdated and inadequate, they should consider the conflict taking place in the Blue Nile state in Sudan.
Last year, the southern half of Sudan broke away from the north and formed its own country, South Sudan. However, rebel groups in areas north of the new border, including the Blue Nile state, continue to fight the Sudanese government. Sudan’s military has responded with a vicious crackdown. Human rights groups and news organizations report that the Sudanese armed forces have been bombing and burning villages in the Blue Nile state, uprooting people from their homes and indiscriminately executing civilians.
The attacks have provoked a major refugee crisis. A hundred thousand people have been internally displaced and at least a hundred thousand more have fled the country into South Sudan and neighboring Ethiopia. Despite the efforts of aid organizations, conditions in the refugee camps are dismal. In one camp, at least nine children die every day of diarrhea, malaria, and other preventable illnesses. Recent heavy rains have led to flooding in the camps, and doctors fear a cholera outbreak is imminent.
We consider these events to be another tragic example of a phenomenon we know well: how the presence of valuable natural resources can combine with other political, economic, and social factors to cause turmoil and bloodshed.
Although the conflict in the Blue Nile state is not directly fueled by blood diamonds or by conflict gold, one of the main points of tension between Sudan and South Sudan is how to share another natural resource: oil. South Sudan controls more than 85% of the oilfields in the formerly unified country, but a crucial oil pipeline needed by South Sudan runs straight through Sudanese territory. One reason why the Sudanese government is attacking the Blue Nile state so viciously is to pressure South Sudan as the two countries try to reach a deal on oil profits.
We think that the conflict demonstrates a very basic and obvious point about resource-spurred conflicts—whether the resource at issue is diamonds, gold, or oil. Governments, and not just rebel forces, are often responsible for the worst violence and suffering. Rebels in the Blue Nile state are probably not blameless for the violence, but in this instance it is the Sudanese government which is engaging in scorched-earth tactics.
This point underscores why the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, needs to be reformed. Under the Kimberley Process, the only diamonds that count as “conflict diamonds” are diamonds that finance rebel groups in a civil war. When governments unleash their militaries to seize or maintain control of diamond resources, the associated diamonds are still labeled as “conflict free” and approved for export.
The Kimberley Process’s definition thus ignores what everyone knows about resource-fueled conflicts and what violence in the Blue Nile state again demonstrates so clearly: that oppressive governments, not rebel forces, are often responsible for the worst atrocities. Indeed, most diamond-related violence today is the result of violence by governments in countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola.
Fortunately, the U.S. government and some other countries recently have been trying to broaden the definition of “conflict diamond” to close this gaping loophole. We support these efforts in the hope that diamonds tainted by government violence will no longer be allowed to enter the global diamond supply.
As for the conflict in the Blue Nile state, there is no simple solution, such as cutting off oil exports. In fact, oil exports from Sudan and South Sudan already have almost ground to a halt because South Sudan lacks access to Sudan’s oil pipeline.
We do hope that a strategy that has proved useful in resolving and preventing blood diamond conflicts may prove applicable in Sudan. In April, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted by an international criminal court for his role in the blood diamond war in Sierra Leone. Sudan’s sitting president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the genocide in Darfur in the mid 2000s. If Bashir, like Taylor, is ever arrested and convicted, it could help end the border conflict and bring peace to Sudan and South Sudan.
However, the humanitarian crisis along the border between Sudan and South Sudan cannot wait for a permanent political settlement. At this juncture, we can only hope that growing awareness of the problem will help lead to international pressure on Sudan to immediately stop the attacks. We also encourage you donate to aid organizations working in the region including Unicef and Doctors without Borders.
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