Whenever ethnic violence starts to spiral out of control, there’s always a temptation to wish it away. Too often, the warning signs are discounted until the loss of life becomes impossible to ignore. But when Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shows up in a country and expresses alarm about rising sectarian violence, that’s about as good a sign as any that the situation is worth paying attention to. So it would be a good idea for the diamond industry to take note of one of Power’s most recent destinations: the diamond-rich Central African Republic.
A former journalist and Harvard professor, Power has dedicated her career to preventing genocide. Prior to joining the Obama administration, she wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the history of the U.S. response to genocide in the 20th century. (She is also, incidentally, known for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” in the 2008 presidential primaries.) Her visit to the Central African Republic last week calls attention to the possibility that the country, already enduring violence, may be on the brink of something more vicious.
The Central African Republic is a small, landlocked country of 4.5 million people located in the heart of Africa. Although it has been unstable for decades, the latest cycle of violence began in March, when a coalition of predominantly Muslim rebels overthrew the government of Francis Bozizé, the dictator since 2003. The rebel takeover, unfortunately, hasn’t brought peace or stability. The new government is so weak that it doesn’t control the country’s territory. And although rebel troops supposedly laid down their weapons, violence has been escalating between former rebels and the country’s Christian majority.
The situation has gotten so bad that more than 600,000 people have fled their homes. Many others have lost their lives. In a report issued earlier this month, Human Rights Watch documented violence by both Muslim and Christians. The report describes, for example, how on October 8 a group of former rebel fighters in the Bassangoa region went door-to-door, burning homes and killing people. “Three Seleka [ex-rebel] fighters came into the house, and I ran out into the bush while my husband remained in the house,” one woman told Human Rights Watch. “They killed him with knives and then burned the house. I saw it with my own eyes, and I could hear the screams of my husband inside.”
The role of diamonds in this violence is not fully clear. Prior to the overthrow of Bozizé’s government, it was believed that rebel groups obtained some of their funding from diamonds. In May, after the rebels took over, the international diamond certification scheme known as the Kimberley Process placed a ban on the country’s diamond exports. But the Central African Republic’s new government maintains that diamonds have little to do with the violence and that the KP ban should be lifted to allow for economic development. “Our country was suspended based on risks but there was no proof that diamonds financed the war,” said the country’s mines minister, on November 28.
These comments shouldn’t be totally dismissed: there is a risk of overstating the role of diamonds in the current conflict. Political and especially religious factors could be more to blame. In addition, the Central African Republic is rich in diamonds but also in gold, timber, uranium, and oil. Issues involving some of these other resources—such as the distribution of oil revenues—may have played as big a role as diamonds in sparking the rebellion that overthrew Bozizé. It also true that the KP is weak and that its diamond bans are easily evaded by smugglers. The effectiveness of the KP’s diamond ban is uncertain.
Even so, lifting the diamond export ban doesn’t seem like a good idea either. Days after the Central African Republic’s government called for a lifting of the ban, Christian vigilantes killed 60 people in Bangui, the country’s capital. Ex-rebels responded by slaughtering more than 1,000 people in two days. In this environment, anything that could possibly stem some of the violence is worth trying. Instead of lifting the ban, the KP should work harder to tighten international controls so that its diamond bans are more effective.
At the same time, the international community needs to be realistic. The KP’s diamond ban will probably have only a small effect on the violence, at best. A stronger international troop presence may be necessary to prevent a significant loss of life. (Power came to the Central African Republic offering $100 million in U.S. financial support to French-led African Union peacekeepers.) Fighters on both sides need to know that they will face criminal penalties for their atrocities. And the international community needs to help negotiate a peaceful way forward.