Diamond War

by Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

When violence first erupted in Sierra Leone in the early nineties, seasoned missionaries Paul and Mary Kortenhoven, who had lived and raised their family in the small northern village of Foria for more than a decade, didn’t take it very seriously. "Nobody called it a war until it had gone on for three years," Paul Kortenhoven says. "It was only a 'rebel incursion' in another part of the country, a temporary problem that would go away."

Instead of going away, though, the violence crept closer. Soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front – an internal rebel movement egged on by future Liberian president Charles Taylor and others in who coveted Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth – began to terrorize villages, maiming, killing and cutting a bloody swath through the country. "There were village burnings, summary executions, a massacre in Pujehun, rumours of children being abducted and brainwashed in a hidden jungle camp," says Kortenhoven.

Even in the early days of the conflict, Kortenhoven says he had little doubt that the violence was linked to diamonds. Diamonds had played a major role in every Sierra Leonean conflict since the gems were discovered there in 1930. Moreover, the anarchy and violence brought on by war provided the perfect cover for diamond smuggling, and those who opposed could easily be paid off in lucrative diamond revenues or killed.

Author Greg Campbell, an expert on the 1990s conflict in Sierra Leone, calls the 1990s conflict in an elaborate “jewelry heist.” Liberia nurtured a close relationship with the RUF – training and mentoring troops and supplying them with weapons. It was like armed robbery on a national scale, with diamonds as the loot. Akin to the tactics used in money-laundering schemes, rebels smuggled rough diamonds across the border to “friends” in Liberia, where they were marketed as “Liberian” stones. Diamond revenues filled the purse of warlord Charles Taylor, who would eventually become president of Liberia, with payoffs flowing freely to all who supported him. The diamonds, on the other hand, which had been bought with the blood of Sierra Leone’s people, were eagerly snatched up by legitimate diamond merchants, ending up in the display cases of prestigious jewelry retailers around the world.

 

Development Disrupted

The violence that reached the Kortenhoven’s village of Foria in November 1994 continued to spin out of control throughout the 1990s. The Kortenhovens watched 14 years of work in community development disintegrate before their eyes. The people with whom they had lived and worked were uprooted and afraid. Anarchy reigned, and the Kortenhovens had to turn their attention to securing relief assistance for internally displaced persons and the refugees that had fled to neighboring countries.

Throughout Sierra Leone, missions closed down and missionaries were sent home. Paul and Mary Kortenhoven were also encouraged to take on a new assignment, but they dug in their feet, refusing to leave. “Ignoring the war was just not an option for us,” says Paul Kortenhoven. “The fighting, burning and killing was just plain wrong, a violation of every human right that we knew. We had to do something to bring peace, to right what was wrong, to help save the children and show solidarity in it all with the people who had made this our family's home for 14 years."

Together with Catholic Relief Services, Kortenhoven and his denomination mobilized a massive relief response. Kortenhoven negotiated with the RUF to secure humanitarian assistance to people in their areas of control and participated in rescue missions to war torn villages by helicopter. He and Mary worked tirelessly to help organize camps and other forms of relief for internally displaced persons.

 

Dealing with Diamonds

Still, Paul Kortenhoven wasn’t satisfied with relief efforts that he felt merely bandaged a wound that was rotten to the core. "There was no way to deal with the war without dealing with the diamonds,” he says. To his loyal group of financial and prayer supporters back home who had made his work possible for 14 years, he now asked for another kind of support. Take a stand against conflict diamonds, he urged. It was the best way to help now.

He knew, however, that only a large-scale campaign could get the word out in a way that would cause the world to act. Kortenhoven soon found that level of support. Ian Smillie, a Canadian humanitarian aid worker and researcher, had first fallen in love with Sierra Leone as a CUSO volunteer in the 1960s. Smillie’s own experiences and a recent visit to Sierra Leone for CARE Canada motivated him to get involved. "At first we were just raising money, but then we realized that diamonds were a crucial part of the problem," Smillie says. "One thing led to another, and we asked fifteen NGOs to provide some money to carry out a study on diamonds in Sierra Leone.”

Kortenhoven followed Smillie's progress and began to feel hopeful. At last the media might pick up on the story of that was happening in was happening because of diamonds. “The publication The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone Diamonds and Human Security, written by Smillie and Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazelton in January 2000 exposed the issue and let it be heard by the right people,” says Kortenhoven. “It was one of the first times the diamond industry was seriously being held to account, and they couldn’t deny the problem anymore.”

 

The Kimberley Process

Despite growing public awareness and the backing of the U.N. in the form of sanctions, the illicit diamond trade continued to wreak havoc in and other countries. But the seeds of change had been planted. "One diamond company executive is rumored to have had nightmares in which the tag line at the end of De Beers television commercials read, 'Amputation Is Forever,'" wrote Greg Campbell in an article for Amnesty International. "The industry grew increasingly amenable to the idea of curtailing the flow of blood diamonds.”

Finally, in May 2000, government representatives and diamond industry leaders gathered with representatives of the NGO community in the South African town of Kimberley to discuss what could be done to combat the trade in diamonds from conflict zones. The result of these negotiations was the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an internationally recognized certification system to identify rough diamonds by country of origin, establishing national import and export standards to prevent the sale of diamonds that originated in war zones.

 

Support Crucial

If Kimberley was to work, however, the support of the United States – the world’s largest consumer of diamonds – was crucial. Kortenhoven and others from hundreds of grassroots church and missions organization now turned their attention to lobbying for passage of legislation that would back up the Kimberley scheme. In July 2004, together with signatories of more than 50 other church and mission organizations, Kortenhoven put his name to an open letter addressed to the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp, Belgium. While the letter didn’t threaten a boycott, it implied that Americans would not continue to purchase diamonds at the cost of human lives.

Kortenhoven also lent his support to the work of Representative Tony Hall, a democrat from Ohio who had visited and had a deep commitment to halting the trade in conflict diamonds. Hall not only understood the issue but had the political will to make it happen. He introduced the Clean Diamond Act, legislation intended to ensure that the import and export controls adopted in the Kimberley process would be reflected in law.

The Clean Diamond Act was also long-supported by Republican Representative Vern Ehlers, a member of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dating back to his work as chairman of a CRWRC task force on world hunger, Ehlers actively supported the denomination's efforts to stop the blood diamond trade, and was instrumental in setting up meetings between Kortenhoven and many Congressional leaders on the issue.

Finally, in a move that many believe helped to tip the balance of public opinion in favor of the Clean Diamond Act, World Vision ran a television ad during the popular TV drama "The West Wing" about blood diamonds and the need for regulation. "Buy a diamond and you may be supporting terrorism in other countries," Martin Sheen narrated as heart-wrenching images of the war faded out one into the other. "In parts of Africa, rebels control diamond mines, terrorize children and adults, maiming them for life...the Clean Diamonds Act can stop the killing by stopping the sale of these conflict diamonds and profits these terrorists use to wage war."

 

A Growing Momentum

Building on this growing national momentum, Kortenhoven and others in his denomination once again mobilized local church members to write letters and contact elected representatives in support of Hall and the legislation – as did hundreds of other denominations and grassroots groups across the country. They called on church members to visit local diamond retailers to ask about the origin of the diamonds on sale. It got to the point, says Kortenhoven, that it was "impossible not to hear about how diamonds were fuelling conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola."

But legislative support of Kimberley still hadn’t been secured. Then came 9/11. A November 2001 article by Doug Farah in the Washington Post entitled “Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade,” brought the horror of the illicit diamond trade closer to home. Farah lined the Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network to the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone. He quoted one European investigator as saying, "I now believe that to cut off al Qaeda funds and laundering activities you have to cut off the diamond pipeline.”

The battle to win over the American public - and its elected representatives - was finally won in April 2003, when the Clean Diamond Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives 408-6, was approved by the U.S. Senate. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, ratified and adopted by 52 governments in November of the previous year, was at last fully implemented in August 2003.

 

Not a Perfect Solution

“While official diamond exports from diamond-producing countries have increased, there are still gaps in the implementation of the Kimberley Process that mean that conflict diamonds can still reach international markets,” says Susie Sanders, who heads up the conflict diamond campaign for UK-based Global Witness and continues to work for stricter regulations. “More must still be done. However, the creation of the Kimberley Process was an important international development and this was possible due to the cooperation of governments, industry and NGOs who were all willing to compromise on occasion to achieve the aim of eradicating conflict diamonds.”

Will the increased diamond revenues that result from Kimberley ever begin to flow down to the people with the most to gain - Sierra Leone's poor? Kortenhoven warns that, without careful monitoring of how diamond revenues are used, it is doubtful that much will change in terms of the country's development. "No one is seriously monitoring how it is being used to benefit the people, especially the actual miners themselves," he says.

Kortenhoven has since handed over the management of development programs in Sierra Leone to qualified national staff and returned to the U.S., but his heart is still in Sierra Leone. He continues to advocate for change and believes it will take much stricter regulations, enforced by governments and the military, to ensure that diamond revenues begin to contribute to the development of countries instead of just causing more death and despair. Areas in Sierra Leone that are rich with the wealth of diamonds remain poor in terms of basic services such asroads, wells, schools and hospitals. Miners work in unimaginable conditions for less than subsistence wages.

Still, even Kortenhoven concedes that he and others involved in the conflict diamond campaign were able to make a difference. "If you're determined and the cause is an important one and you are right in what you say, you can make a difference," agrees Ian Smillie. "The truth was that hundreds of thousands of people were being killed in these wars that were being fueled by diamonds. It didn't take long for the diamond industry to react because they knew we were right."

As for Kortenhoven, he calls his a minor role in a drama where others were the stars. “This story is not your heroic story with Paul in the lead role,” agrees Peter Vander Meulen, Coordinator of the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action, who – with Kortenhoven – helped implement his denomination’s conflict diamond campaign. “This is a story about being faithful in the small things.” Vander Meulen says it took everyone working together, contributing their individual strengths and particular expertise to bring about change. “People need to get the message that their unique skills and gifts can be really critical to a larger global effort.”

 

A Transforming Journey

Diamonds really aren't all that special. Composed of 100 percent carbon, they are made of the simple stuff of pencil leads and plain old lumps of coal. They take on their exquisite qualities only when they are brought up from the depths of the earth during the force of a volcanic eruption. It's the journey that transforms them into stones of such rare and invincible beauty.

Kortenhoven, too, has been transformed by his journey. Not a born “negotiator,” “lobbyist” or “activist”; he simply loved Sierra Leone and its people. His faith called him to put that love into action. He urges others to take on a cause they care about and work for change. “Most people sell themselves short when it comes to making a difference in the world, saying things like ‘I'm just not the activist type,’” Kortenhoven says. “We all have the ability to effect change. We just need to open our eyes to the pain caused by injustice – and care enough to do the thing that God puts in front of us to do.”

 

Keep in Mind

Mission work doesn't stop at the village border

The Clean Diamond Act, Kimberley Process, and everything else accomplished by Kortenhoven and others required international attention.

One person can make a difference, but one person can't do it all

Without the assistance of several organizations and government officials, Kortenhoven would have been just another missionary run out of town.

You don't have to be Mother Theresa to get involved

Money, power, or perfection aren't required to make a difference. By writing a few letters, asking the right questions, and combining faith with passion, Kortenhoven helped improve the lives of millions.