11/20/2013 08:02 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Guns and Gems: The True Cost of Your Diamonds

If you knew that [Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front] were coming, or if you even heard a rumour that the RUF were on their way, knowing that they cut the hands and feet off babies, you wouldn't hang around very long. And it worked -- it was very successful. It helped them clear the diamond fields, and they could dig diamonds to their heart's content. There are 1.5-million artisanal diamond diggers in Africa -- they produce about 16 per cent of the world's diamonds. So there's a good chance that 16 per cent of the diamonds in any store are part of that problem.

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

"Ian Smillie is lying through his teeth."

With these words, former warlord and Liberian President Charles Taylor denounced the man who would implicate him in Liberia and Sierra Leone's illicit diamond trade.

In Taylor's hands, Sierra Leone's sparkling baubles fuelled a litany of horrific human rights abuses ranging from rape, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers. And in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone, his violent calling card: fingers, hands, feet, and ears, even those of babies, cut off by rebel soldiers.

Found guilty in 2012, Charles Taylor's conviction was upheld by the Special Court for Sierra Leone's Appeal Chamber, again shining the media spotlight on the diamond industry.

Canadian Ian Smillie would be the first witness to testify at Charles Taylor's trial in the Hague, a trial that included other noted -- and reluctant -- witnesses such as model Naomi Campbell and actress Mia Farrow.

For the last 15 years, Smillie has worked on the frontlines of the conflict and blood diamond trade, from "the jungles of West Africa to the backstreets of Antwerp and a war crimes tribunal in the Hague." A teacher, author of seminal works on blood diamonds such as the upcoming book Diamonds (Polity, Cambridge), and Liberian "enemy of the state," Smillie was also one of the architects of the Kimberley Process, a certification scheme that sought to eradicate the sale and trade of conflict diamonds.

In an interview with Ramp1885, Ian Smillie talks blood and conflict diamonds -- what it takes for a diamond to make it from the mine to a ringed finger, what happened when he came face to face with Charles Taylor, what he thought of Naomi Campbell's testimony at the Hague, and how to buy "clean" diamonds.

What drew you to document and fight the illicit diamond trade?

It was kind of serendipity.

In 1967, when I graduated from university, I joined CUSO and went to Africa to teach high school. And by chance, I was posted to Sierra Leone, to Koidu Secondary School, right in the heart of the diamond area.

So I had seen the chaos and confusion of the artisanal diamond fields, the police chasing the diggers, the government trying to get a grip on things, and the Lebanese diamond dealers operating under the table, and over the table, as well.

So when the war started in Sierra Leone, a number of people like me who knew Sierra Leone and had a soft spot for it wondered why nothing was being done; Why wasn't the UN there; Why Sierra Leone didn't seem to be on anybody's radar.

And as we got into it more and more, we realized that there was a diamond connection.

For me, in a sense, it was like going back to Koidu and trying to understand what had happened after all those years.

What is a blood diamond?

There are two answers to that question -- one is the official definition of "blood diamond" as accepted by the Kimberley Process, and then there's a wider understanding of what a "blood diamond" is.

The Kimberley Process doesn't use the term "blood diamond," they use the term "conflict diamond" and by that they mean diamonds that are used by rebel armies to purchase weapons, to try and overthrow a legitimate government.

But there has been a debate going on within the Kimberley Process for more than four years now about widening the definition to include human rights abuse. That's turned into quite an ugly fight within the Kimberley Process and it hasn't actually got anywhere.

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You talked a little about the Kimberley Process -- can you explain what that is?

When the blood diamond issue started to become public, the diamond industry and a number of governments who rely on diamonds for a healthy part of their economies decided that something had to be done.

The Government of South Africa called a meeting that took place in May 2000, in the town of Kimberley in South Africa, bringing together NGOs, industry, and governments to see whether something could be done about this problem.

At the time, blood diamonds were fuelling conflicts in Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and elsewhere. Over half a million people had been killed in these conflicts.

It was agreed that there would have to be a few more meetings to hammer out the details of a certification system; this would be a process, and that's why it became known as the Kimberley Process.

You have said: "the Kimberley Process has teeth, but it won't bite." What did you mean by that?

The Kimberley Process is actually quite a remarkable agreement. There's no treaty, there's no formal document that a government has to sign. It didn't involve the United Nations, except insofar as the United Nations endorsed the general principle.

It was voluntary -- no government was forced to become a member. But if a country does want to join, it must pass legislation conforming to the standards set by the Kimberley Process. Each member country has to issue a certificate for each parcel of diamonds being exported, saying that the diamonds are clean and that the government has an auditable chain of custody tracking them back to the place where they were mined, or where they were imported.

It had all the necessary bells and whistles -- all the rules and regulations are there, they're all spelled out and it's backed by the laws of each one of the member countries, but in the case of non-compliance, the Kimberley Process hasn't got very many ways of dealing with it.

The only thing it can do with a country that is in serious non-compliance is to kick it out, so they can't trade diamonds. There have been several cases of very serious non-compliance that have never been fixed and where the Kimberley Process has more or less pretended that it isn't a problem and said, "well, we can't do anything about it."

You walked away from the Kimberley Process -- what was that decision like for you?

It was an emotional decision because I'd been involved in this for a long time. I had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it -- as did many others.

When 200 artisanal miners were shot and killed by Zimbabwean armed forces, and the issue was raised in the Kimberley Process, it became clear that there was going to be little, if any, action. It made no sense in a system aimed at stopping diamond-related violence, to allow a member government to get away with killing 200 people in its enforcement.

So I resigned, with a bit of noise, thinking that it might help to move them forward. It didn't. It didn't do a thing as far as I can see.

What are your thoughts on the interchangeability of "blood diamonds" and "conflict diamonds"?

The term "conflict diamonds" is a kind of a sanitized way of talking about "blood diamonds." People in the industry don't like the term "blood diamonds."

But if you have an official definition of "conflict diamonds" that leaves out major human rights abuses, including murder, then you need a bigger term or a different term. Until this problem of human rights is fixed, "blood diamond" works.

Can you explain to us the relationship between Charles Taylor and the illicit diamond trade?

Charles Taylor was a Liberian warlord in the early '90s who achieved power and became President of Liberia in 1997. During the early '90s and later, after he became president, he supported the rebel army next door in Sierra Leone -- the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

He had learned that in order to finance his rampage to power, he needed to find some way to pay for it. Liberia didn't have many diamonds of its own, but next door, in Sierra Leone, they have some of the best diamonds in the world.

So Taylor became -- as warlord and later as president -- the main benefactor of the RUF. The RUF was a very brutal gang of killers -- they claimed to be fighting for democracy and justice, but they waged their war on civilians. They would attack a town and cut the hands and feet off civilians -- men, women, children. The purpose was to clear towns and villages so that the invading army could forage with impunity, and they did it as well to clear the diamond fields. If you knew that the RUF were coming, or if you even heard a rumour that the RUF were on their way, knowing that they cut the hands and feet off babies, you wouldn't hang around very long.

And it worked -- it was very successful. It helped them clear the diamond fields, and they could dig diamonds to their heart's content.

What was it like, the first time you came face to face with Charles Taylor? And then later, in the Hague?

I was warned to be careful.

I was warned by a very senior Liberian that I shouldn't go to Liberia, that I was regarded as an enemy of the state.

Charles Taylor, when our UN investigative team met with him, was charm incarnate. He was very disarming, he answered all the questions that we had -- but I wouldn't say that he answered them truthfully, or in full by any means.

Charles Taylor has said: "Ian Smillie is lying through his teeth," -- how did that make you feel?

I would occasionally dip into the (court) transcripts and see what was going on, and to see your name pulled out of a hat by somebody like Charles Taylor a couple of years after you've testified, in that way, is a bit unnerving.

But in a way it's kind of nice to be remembered by him -- it means that, in some way, I struck a nerve.

What did you think of Naomi Campbell's testimony at the Taylor trial?

The Naomi Campbell testimony was a bit odd.

It came late in the trial. It wasn't very deep or meaningful, but I think it was important in the sense that it reminded people that this trial was still going on. She clearly was so terrified of Charles Taylor, even with Taylor in jail, that she was very skittish about saying what happened, what she remembered, what he did, what she did, and all the rest of it.

But she reminded the court and the judges that when she met Charles Taylor in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's house, and he offered her a gift of some diamonds -- it told the judges that Taylor's own testimony about that trip to South Africa was somewhat misleading. He said he didn't take any diamonds to South Africa, that he didn't have any diamonds, that diamonds really weren't part of his way of doing business...

How can consumers make be sure their diamonds are clean?

The Kimberly Process guarantees under their certificate that their diamonds aren't fuelling wars, but it doesn't guarantee an absence of human rights abuse or even on some of the more fundamental development issues that exist around diamonds in Africa.

There are 1.5-million artisanal diamond diggers in Africa -- they produce about 16 per cent of the world's diamonds. And they're earning about a dollar a day. They live in absolute poverty and they're vulnerable to just about every kind of predator -- military, economic -- you name it.

The Kimberley Process has nothing to say about that, so there's a good chance that 16 per cent of the diamonds in any store are part of that problem.

At the Diamond Development Initiative, we're working on a number of projects with African governments and industry to try and change the lot of artisanal diamond miners -- to get them better prices, to get them better working conditions, to get them into the formal side of the diamond industry so they don't have to run away every time somebody shows up with a gun.

Interested in clean diamonds? Check out the Diamond Development Initiative.