July 22, 2000

A diamond may be forever, but perhaps the diamond trade is not. The industry has been embarrassed by revelations about how some brutal rebel forces in Africa use gems to sustain their fighting. The United Nations has slapped diamond embargoes on rebel-held areas of Angola and Sierra Leone in the hopes of taming those civil wars.

Diamonds are suddenly the issue of the moment. They're on the agenda at the G-8 meeting of big powers in Japan, and diamond giant De Beers announced recently that it no longer will sell "conflict diamonds." The fact that public concern over serious human rights abuse can provoke upheaval in a multibillion-dollar industry is heartening indeed. But diamonds don't kill people, guns do. In the current enthusiasm for diamond embargoes, the long-standing arms embargoes on Angola and Sierra Leone largely are being ignored. If the world really wanted to stop the carnage in those countries, it would start by enforcing these arms embargoes.

At Human Rights Watch, we have no evidence that the diamond embargo on Angola has made any appreciable dent in the revenue or ability to fight off the UNITA rebel force. Diamonds are easy to smuggle, and when mixed with stones of varying origins, they're almost impossible to identify under the standards required by a court of law. Once polished, their origin is undetectable.

For all its flaws, an international certificate scheme for diamonds is a good place to start. But more important is to ensure that abusive forces never get weapons in the first place.

To begin enforcing arms embargoes will require radically different behavior on the part of the U.N. and its member states. First, monitors must be deployed in any country under embargo to check suspicious shipments at border crossings, roads and airstrips. These monitors need to change location unpredictably to take smugglers by surprise. Second, a serious and well-funded inquiry must expose the sources of the weapons being smuggled--and the complicit companies and governments. For Angola, the U.N. deputized a commission led by Canadian Ambassador Robert R. Fowler to undertake such a probe. Its report, issued in April, had shortcomings, but it was a big step in the right direction. A similar commission authorized for Sierra Leone will need strong leadership and financial backing. Sierra Leone has been under an arms embargo since 1997, and neighboring Liberia, through which most of the rebels' diamonds and weapons flow, since 1992.

These embargoes are a joke. In early June, there were press reports of two truckloads of weapons crossing from Liberia into Sierra Leone, as well as another shipment of a rocket launcher.

Poking around on borders and identifying malefactors is essentially undiplomatic activity and not something the U.N. has been eager to undertake. Yet it must. The U.N. needs a permanent arms embargo unit with real investigative capacity and the mandate to keep hammering at governments that try to cover up their complicity.

But not all the blame for lax enforcement can be laid at the door of the U.N. Individual governments also are at fault. Diamond embargoes are more attractive to them partly because the busy work of checking certificates can be done at home. Arms embargoes require sending outsiders into obscure countries to do dangerous work.

To make a U.N. embargo binding on private companies and individuals, governments must pass "implementing legislation" that incorporates it into domestic law. On the very day after the U.N. Security Council approved the diamond embargo on Sierra Leone, several countries immediately passed such legislation. Yet only a tiny handful of countries has put the Sierra Leone arms embargo into domestic law.

The diamond trade and the arms trade are closely linked. The current debate over diamonds could help get to the heart of this dirty business, but not if it's used as a low-cost, low-risk publicity stunt to avoid talking about the real problem.