Almost unnoticed in the rich world, a trial for Crimes Against Humanity is taking place in the Hague. From a shiny modern courthouse, a medieval story is emerging – one where the poorest people in the world were invaded, raped and mutilated, just to seize some shiny stones for the richest people in the world to wear. The evidence and testimony at the trial of the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor over the past few months has stretched beyond the court's tight remit to determine his own personal cruelty. Instead, the witnesses are finally revealing the inside story of the biggest diamond heist in history – one that killed 75,000 innocent people, crippled an entire country, and left a trail of blood that runs right to your local jewellery store.
This story begins and ends with diamonds. Sierra Leone is a tiny West African country blessed with four and a half million people and cursed with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of diamonds. As soon as the glistening chunks of carbon were discovered by the British imperial occupiers in the 1930s, they became a locus of conflict as the desperate locals swarmed with picks and hammers to chip away their own fraction of the fortune. By the 1950s, De Beers – who had been granted exclusive rights to exploit the diamonds by the British – were paying private companies to litter the country with landmines to keep the natives out.
But it was in the early 1990s that the most ambitious – and apocalyptic – plan to grab the diamonds was hatched. A man called Foday Sankoh was at its centre. He had once been a soldier in the Sierra Leonean army, but he was by then biding his time as a television cameraman. With several of his Liberian friends – including Sam Bockarie, a hairdresser and nightclub dancer – he decided to launch a wildly ambitious, wildly violent attempt to seize Sierra Leone's diamond fields and run them as a private criminal empire. He scrambled around for support from a string of dictators: Libya's Muammar Gaddafi provided training, while Liberia's Taylor provided arms and some of his own battalions.
With this, Sankoh raised a private militia, giving it the grand-sounding name of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). He clothed it with the bare minimum of revolutionary rhetoric, plagiarising a few phrases from Mao. This was enough to begin recruiting men from the ghettos of West Africa, promising them a job, food and "liberation". He decided to recruit children: a nine-year old with an AK47 was more use to him than a 40- year-old.
Everything was now in place to mount a "rebellion" – a de facto invasion – in eastern Sierra Leone, where the diamonds waited. The RUF's policy was simple, and summarised in the name that Sankoh gave to one of his military manoeuvres: Operation Kill Everything. The aim was to impose maximum terror on the civilian population immediately, to drive them out and make sure nobody ever tried to come back.
They soon developed a trademark tactic: they would chop off the hands of any civilian they stumbled across. Helen K was a typical young woman found by Human Rights Watch in the RUF's wake. She explained she had lost her two children after an RUF attack and had no idea where they were. "They captured me and said to lie on the floor," she said. "I was reluctant; they cut me on the neck with a machete. I was cut by a small boy. Then they put my hand on a stone and cut [it off]... I had to bury my own hand."
The child soldiers were hyped-up with drugs before being sent out to slay. Douglas Farah's account of the war, Blood from Stones, says: "One thing the children do remember vividly is the preparation for what they called 'mayhem days', sprees of killing and raping that lasted until the participants collapsed from exhaustion. They said they were given coloured pills, most likely amphetamines, and razor blade slits near their temples, where cocaine was put directly into their bloodstreams. The ensuing days were a blur."
It worked. Soon, two million people were homeless and the RUF had its diamonds.
And here is where we come in. The international diamond industry was waiting with its chequebook open. Charles Taylor was the middleman, taking a cut from the cutting. The diamonds were shipped via Liberia to Antwerp in Belgium, where they were snapped up by the diamond companies. A few saw a PR disaster looming – De Beers wouldn't touch them. But many others handed cash to the RUF, and the stones were soon on sale across Europe and the US.
Ian Smillie, a diamond expert who served on the UN panel investigating the pillage, explains: "There is no way the war could have happened the way it did, and carried on for 10 years, without rich Westerners buying the diamonds. The RUF had very little support anywhere. It had no tribal base in the country, it had no other governments supporting them apart from Taylor."
The RUF soon stepped up the supply, to the diamond industry's delight. It was a simple causal relationship: so rich Westerners could have a glistening choker, poor children were choked.
We are getting somewhat better at arresting state criminals: we got (albeit briefly) Slobodan Milosevic, Augusto Pinochet, and Charles Taylor, and in time we'll get Henry Kissinger, Robert Mugabe and more. But corporate criminals routinely get away with murder. Literally.
Taylor is alone in the dock. The diamond dealers who knowingly paid him for his services are free and fat on the profits. If you or I paid a known murderer to go and rob somebody for us, we'd go to prison. But if a corporation does it on a massive scale, there is no punishment. This is almost invariably the case with corporate human rights abuses: Union Carbide has paid no price for killing 5,000 people in Bhopal, Shell has paid no price for its role in the decimation of the Niger Delta, and on, and on.
The diamond industry has been allowed to act as though rape and mutilation are an acceptable part of its supply chain. Sure, it eventually developed a system for certifying diamonds as the slaughter was ending anyway (and even that is filled with holes). But for the hundreds of thousands of handless women like Helen K, diamonds are for ever. For them, at the very least, there needs now to be an international diamond tax, with the proceeds providing reparations for Sierra Leone, and the other countries raped for their diamonds: Angola and the Congo.
But we need more. If corporate criminals are not charged and jailed, they will carry on committing crimes against humanity. It is glorious to see Charles Taylor in the dock. But this should be merely the first sentence of justice for the people of Sierra Leone – and the victims of profit-driven slaughter everywhere.