As Ivory Coast's Gbagbo holds firm, 'blood diamonds' flow for export

As Ivory Coast's renegade President Laurent Gbagbo shrugs off international attempts to isolate his regime, smugglers continue to export 'blood diamonds' in contravention of a United Nations ban.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
'Blood diamonds' continue to be traded out of Ivory Coast. Experts say that sales of the illegal diamonds are used to buy arms for the New Forces rebel group in the north. (diamonds shown are not known to be 'blood diamonds')

"Blood diamonds" have been eradicated in every part of the world, save one: Ivory Coast, the small West African nation that now stands on the brink of returning to civil war.

Smugglers in Ivory Coast continue to carry illicit diamonds across the country's porous borders despite a United Nations ban on exports of the stones. Revenues from the illegal trade are probably buying arms for the New Forces rebel group in the north, even as the southern half of the country remains fixed in an increasingly violent political standoff in which renegade incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to hand power to President-elect Alassane Ouattara.

Exports of "blood diamonds" have underwritten grisly civil conflicts in Africa for more than 15 years, most famously in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. To combat the trade, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was established in 2003 and has been widely hailed as a success. But even though the diamond-funded conflicts of the 1990s are over and most of the countries involved now mine and export diamonds legally, Ivory Coast remains the one exception.

"[Ivory Coast] is the only country where, strictly speaking, you do have conflict diamonds," says Stéphane Chardon, the chairman of the Kimberley Process's Working Group on Monitoring. "I think this is a very volatile situation. At this stage, the main goal is to prevent [Ivorian] diamonds from contributing to any wrongdoing."

A country divided

The New Forces have controlled the northern half of Ivory Coast since 2002. Nearly all of Ivory Coast's diamond deposits are located in the north, where the rebel group levies taxes on the production and trade of the stones.

The UN prohibited all imports of Ivorian diamonds in 2005, citing links to the rebels. The embargo has been extended ever since.

Despite the ban, diamond extraction is booming in the north-central Ivorian district of Séguéla, where new deposits have "significantly increased" the country's rough diamond production, a group of experts concluded in a report for the UN Sanctions Committee in April.

The total value of diamond production in Ivory Coast has been estimated at between $18 million and $20 million, says Mr. Chardon. He stresses that the figure represents only a fraction of a percent of the $9 billion global trade in the stones.

The relatively low figure is a reflection of the small scale of Ivorian diamond mining. Artisanal miners who use hand-held sieves to pan for the stones in rivers and streams are responsible for most production. Richer deposits lie in kimberlite pipes deep below the surface, but the miners lack technology to access them.

The production values in Ivory Coast may be low, but they should not be taken lightly, says Elly Harrowell of the Global Witness rights group in London.

"The money from those exports could buy a lot of guns," she says.

How to stem the trade

Other West African nations have proved that it is possible to curtail the flow of illicit diamonds, but the process takes time – and the cooperation of government officials.

Sierra Leone, whose diamond-funded civil war officially ended in January 2002, was one of the founding members of the Kimberley Process the following year. Liberian diamonds were under UN sanctions for six years, but the country was admitted into the Kimberley Process and began to export diamonds legally in 2007.

Both countries were able to make huge strides in regulating their diamond industries through the help of experts sponsored by the Kimberley Process.

Government officials in Liberia and Sierra Leone worked with Kimberley experts to design and implement new legislation and other controls on diamond production and trade. The results, though not perfect, have been impressive.

Registering miners and traders

Similar work needs to be done in Ivory Coast, but the fiery political climate in Abidjan makes it nearly impossible for outsiders to work directly with the Ivorian government. Despite the tension, steps can be taken outside the country to stem the flow of Ivorian diamonds, says Chardon, the chair of the Kimberley monitoring group.

The Kimberley Process should continue helping West African nations boost their internal controls on the diamond industry, Chardon says, to help prevent Ivorian stones from leaking into their systems. Production and sales books need to be kept up to date, he says, and all miners and traders should be registered all the way up the supply chain. Such efforts are already under way in Ghana, Liberia, and Guinea, thanks to funding from Kimberley Process members.

Meanwhile, the world's major diamond trading centers – namely the European Union, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates – should be more vigilant about Ivorian diamonds, Chardon adds. This could mean instructing customs officials to be on the lookout for diamonds of dubious origin, and creating new rules to regulate flights arriving from Ivory Coast.

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