Searching for Blood DiamondsAugust 13, 20
Search for blood diamonds on Google and you'll find plenty of entries.
But try finding the real thing, also known as conflict diamonds, in a jewelry store today and you'll struggle. Or so says Jacques Voorhees, veteran diamond entrepreneur, who is about to publish In Search of Conflict Diamonds, based on the time he spent in Sierra Leone in 2002 after the bloody 11-year civil war finally ended.
With apologies for the spoiler, I can tell you he struggled to find any. And as a result of what he saw he feels passionately about what he sees as the sincere but misguided attempts to demonize diamonds.
"The diamonds were blamed for the atrocities carried out by the rebels," he said in a interview this week. "But they were simply looting whatever they could find - diamonds, bauxite, lumber, aluminium - to trade for weapons to carry on their struggle."
The diamonds weren't the problem, he says. The war was the problem. Boycotting diamonds only served to damage the struggling artisans whose livelihood depended on sifting riverside mud for alluvial gems.
The Revolutionary United Front carried out unspeakable atrocities against the people of Sierra Leone to subdue them throughout its long but unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government.
During their campaign of terror the rebels raped, tortured, mutilated, kidnapped and enslaved countless victims. They murdered 50,000 people, they burned entire villages, they forced children to fight as their soldiers.
And the horror that made global headlines was that they chopped off the limbs of men, women and children. In some cases they even ate them.
Thousands of men and women were forced into slavery, digging for diamonds with their bare hands, to fund the rebels' war.
The country was producing $125m of diamonds a year at the time, the kind of money that buys a lot of guns.
During his time there in 2002, just after the war ended, Jacques was introduced to business people, UN officials, diamond diggers, diamond dealers, anyone and everyone connected with the industry. He wanted to see what they thought about blood diamonds.
One of his most powerful encounters was at an amputee camp, where he met a school teacher who was shot trying to escape from the RUF and then had a leg hacked off with a machete.
Pictured: Jacques Voorhees
Jacques asked him what the diamond industry should do.
"The diamond industry? The diamonds should be used to help the Sierra Leone people," he said. "This is our wealth, all these resources. If we had this wealth, if it were not stolen from us, it would help Sierra Leone.
"With the wealth from the diamonds and the lumber and the bauxite, we could cure everything. No hunger. No poverty."
Did he think the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, set up in the aftermath of the civil war to ensure that shipments of rough diamonds worldwide were 'conflict-free' would help?
No, he said. The war was over, the RUF was no longer a problem, and keeping wealth within the country was far more important to the people of his country than an extra layer of bureaucracy on diamond sales.
Jacques himself says he has nothing but admiration for those who administer the Kimberley Process, though he says it's a case of closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
"I don't think they do much good, but I don't think they do any harm either," he says.
"The diamond industry didn't respond to the war in Sierra Leone by saying it was innocent, though that was true. It jumped through all sorts of hoops to make sure no unauthorized diamond reached the cutting centres. It muted what could have been a PR nightmare, although there are people who still think there are blood diamonds."
So do blood diamonds exist? "If you're taking about the diamonds that were looted by rebels and traded for guns, you could call them blood diamonds. But diamonds get the blame for the atrocities carried out by the rebels.
"Controlling the movement of diamonds is laughable as a solution. It's like waving chain-link fencing at a virus. It's the wrong tool for the job. What makes me so upset is that it detracts from the real issue, which is what the world needs to do to stop the conflict."
Jacques has met representatives from Global Witness, the London-based NGO that has been at the forefront of the blood diamond campaign.
It argues that the diamonds "have funded brutal conflicts in Africa that have resulted in the death and displacement of millions of
people (and) have been used by terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda to finance their activities, and for money laundering purposes".
How does he respond? "They were young and passionate but what they were doing was child-like," he says. "Trying to make diamonds less desirable only puts diamond diggers out of work.
"The people most affected by what happened in Sierra Leone do not believe the atrocities had anything to do with diamonds. They know best."