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UN Mission to Review Progress in Curbing 'Blood Diamond' Trade in West Africa - 2003-06-26

Security Council members are beginning a mission to war-torn West Africa, just weeks after they took a bold step and lifted a three-year ban on the diamond trade with Sierra Leone. The move is a response to apparent progress in curbing trade in so-called "blood diamonds" to finance conflicts that have been roiling African nations for years.

When the Security Council first imposed the sanctions rebels effectively controlled Sierra Leone.

During the civil war that raged throughout the 1990s, formally ending in 2002, rebels smuggled diamonds into neighboring Liberia in exchange for arms. They overthrew a democratically elected government and committed horrific human-rights violations.

Beginning in 1999, British troops and U.N. peacekeepers helped restore calm to the country. Elections were held last May and a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal has been established in Sierra Leone.

Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, who heads the Security Council sanctions committee on Sierra Leone, is confident that the government now controls the diamond mines and enforces a new diamond certification system.

"I, as president of the committee on sanctions to Sierra Leone, visited recently Sierra Leone and I was able to corroborate efforts of the government of Sierra Leone to comply with the provisions of the sanctions regime and to put in effect the certification process," he explained. "We have also discussed these things with countries that import diamonds from Sierra Leone and we are confident with the system that is established today, the diamonds will not be again used for fostering violence."

Sierra Leone's certification system aims to prevent illicit diamond exports. The United States, British mining experts, and the World Bank are helping the war-torn country monitor the gems.

The program in Sierra Leone is part of an international trend towards curbing the flow of blood diamonds. After an international outcry, several southern African countries established new safeguards on the diamond trade in May 2000. Led by South Africa, a system known as the "Kimberley Process" emerged to verify the origins of diamonds.

Peter Takirambudde, who runs the Africa division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch monitoring group, says new measures by the diamond industry and the international community may have minimized the flow of blood diamonds, but have not eliminated the problem.

"I think one cannot completely guarantee that the international stream is now clean or free of blood diamonds," he said. "It is entirely possible that some still find their way into the international system. It is entirely possible that traders are able to corrupt the certification system somewhat and, therefore, continue to trade in blood diamonds.

A Security Council ban on diamond exports from Liberia remains in effect. There, the conflict involving rebel groups is in danger of escalating out of control.

In recent years, wars partly fueled by natural resources, have also ravaged Angola, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and most recently the Congo.

More than three million people have died since 1998 in Congo, where neighboring nations have supported several rebel groups. Now, a new wave of brutality in Congo's eastern Ituri province has brought a multi-national force to try to prevent the crisis from deteriorating further.

In the Congo, some militias are fighting for control of gold, diamonds, tin, and coltan, a material used in cellular phones.

Mr. Takirambudde says Human Rights Watch monitors the conflicts, where the traditional competition for rich natural resources is fused with the battle for power.

"Quite clearly there was evidence that both rebels and governments were fighting for control over the diamond mining areas of Liberia," he said. "In Angola, clearly there was a struggle over control of diamond mining as a source of revenue. The eastern Congo, which has experienced some of the worst human rights abuses in Africa today, clearly there has been a struggle to control resources, diamonds, coltan and gold."

Meanwhile, the 10-day Security Council mission to the troubled region is to visit Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. They will visit Liberia if security permits.

The trip follows a council mission to war-torn Central Africa earlier this month.

Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, who is leading the first leg of trip says it is time for the international community to do more for Africa.

"We are in debt with Africa," he said. "For one reason or another the Western world has neglected or has abused Africa for centuries, more abused than sometimes strictly neglect, but now we cannot fall into neglect. And there have been decades of neglect of Africa and I think it is the time for the United Nations to [give Africa] its full attention."

During the last Security Council mission to West Africa in 2000, the focus was the conflict in Sierra Leone. Now, as the West African nation begins to rebuild, the Security Council is concentrating on the crisis in Liberia, while encouraging Sierra Leone to use diamond revenues for reconstruction.