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Why Charles Taylor's Blood Diamond Conviction Matters

Someone who participated in the beginnings of the Kimberley Process once told me that, of all the world leaders he met, the two with the most personal charisma were Bill Clinton … and former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Unfortunately, Taylor used his talent and power to commit acts that horrified the world. His conviction last week on charges of war crimes related to the “blood diamond” business is another reminder of our trade’s troubling past—and why the world expects us to do better in the future. 

African history is filled with despots like Taylor. But what happens when those despots’ countries contain diamonds? This doesn’t always yield a clear-cut answer. If the industry avoids buying gems from, say, Zimbabwe, that throws people out of work and increases suffering there. (And, in the case of Zimbabwe, the population is already suffering plenty as it is.) Rio Tinto executives I’ve spoken to genuinely believe that they are doing a good thing by operating Murowa.

On the other hand, what happens when, as in Marange, diamond proceeds are (mostly) bypassing the citizenry, and funding the government elite—so much so that the stones are embargoed by the E.U. and U.S.? If Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe is re-elected this year, the world will likely express outrage and disappointment. And some may point the finger at diamonds for funding his campaign. That will be both a public relations disaster, and a moral one.

Most of the problems with conflict diamonds are history. But the industry’s reputational problems are not. For our trade to regain public trust, we must act in a way that’s above reproach—and avoid not just conflict diamonds by the traditional definition, but diamonds associated with violence and tyranny. We may not be able to choose who leads the nations of Africa. But we can choose that, if we do business in a country, we make a positive contribution, and ensure the gem business truly benefits the people who need it. 

The diamond industry is now permanently linked in history books with the terrible story of Charles Taylor. That can’t be changed. Going forward, we have to ask ourselves: Do we want the Robert Mugabe story to read the same way?

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