Jackson Center CEO Speaks To Rotary Club

Jim Johnson, CEO and president of the Robert H. Jackson Center spoke to the Rotary Club of Greater Jamestown AM at a recent weekly meeting at the Marvin House in Jamestown. Johnson’s topic was one he is intimately familiar with – The Blood Diamonds of Sierra Leone. Johnson was the chief of prosecutions at the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Wikipedia definition: “A blood diamond (also called a conflict diamond, converted diamond, hot diamond, or war diamond) is a diamond mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, invading army’s war efforts, or a warlord’s activity.”

The following narrative is Johnson’s exciting “backstage view” of the conflict, the diamonds and the prosecution of Charles Taylor. As Johnson indicated, the term blood diamonds came out of the conflict in Sierra Leone. This conflict lasted from March 1991 until January 2002 when it was declared officially over. The conservative estimate is that 50,000 were killed in this conflict. Johnson estimates that the real number of deaths may be closer to 100,000. And – that if you add the Liberia and regional conflict, 200,000 is a probable number. Adding all Africa conflicts and the possible number of deaths is in the millions.

Johnson stated that the conflicts are not about the diamonds themselves but the diamonds are the means of funding the conflicts for Charles Taylor and other rebels. The conflicts are about power and control.

He also described the blood diamonds as not what we typically think of as mined diamonds. The blood diamonds are the result of alluvial mining processes, not traditional mining. They are reminiscent of panning for gold, i.e., huge gravel pits often washed into rivers and these diamonds are panned in mud pits. “This,” he stated, “is how they are so easily acquired and how they are so easily prone to black market trade eventually finding themselves in legitimate markets.” Sierra Leone had a high percentage of gem quality diamonds which made them exceptionally popular and attractive to the rebels. The rebels took control of the area where the mines are located. Civilians were forced into brutal slave labor and were considered expendable and as previously noted, many lost their lives.

Charles Taylor, president of Liberia, controlled the movements in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. His lust for power to be premier of both African countries. As Johnson shared, the brutality of the conflicts was immense. The rebels, although some may have been initially idealistic, became enamored with the wealth and none of it trickled down to the poor. Johnson opined that perhaps a higher percentage than we realize made its way to the U.S. He said, “By buying diamonds, we were probably to some extent funding the conflict.”

Johnson also briefly explained the Kimberley Process which came about as a way to control the illegal trade because it requires certification of diamonds as conflict free. He noted that while it has helped, it is a flawed process only as good as the government that is certifying the diamonds. A corrupt government – such as Taylor headed – would not hesitate to certify falsely. Some, according to Johnson, feel the process is a complete failure.

Johnson shared a personal vignette about model Naomi Campbell and actress Mia Farrow who were both witnesses and whose testimony aided in the conviction of Taylor. According to Johnson, in 1997 at the request of South African President Nelson Mandela, both these ladies were present to help him (Mandela) launch a charity. Taylor crashed the party. As Johnson noted for us, it would have been out of order for Mandela to ban him from attending the party … kind of one African country president calling on another; he essentially could not turn him away. He went on to comment that a mild flirtation was reported to have begun between Campbell and Taylor. And although Campbell was warned off him, she continued to flirt and Taylor caused to have delivered diamonds to her at the guest house she was staying in the next day. The significance of this event was that Taylor’s defense in the subsequent trial was that he had never had in his possession rough cut diamonds. Johnson also explained that Campbell was an uncooperative witness – probably embarrassed. She was subpoenaed to come to court and she did show up, but did not allow an interview in advance of her testimony. Under oath she was evasive, but when her testimony was tied to the testimony of Carol White, her agent, and Mia Farrow, it was enough to prove that Taylor did have access to blood diamonds. Mia Farrow testified that Campbell told her, “Taylor gave me a big diamond.” Carol White testified she saw the paper (with the diamonds in it) passing to Campbell. It is illegal in South Africa to possess uncut diamonds … hence the passing of the items in the paper. In her testimony Campbell indicated that Taylor gave her some dirty little pebbles, but no mention of the big diamond was ever made.

According to Wikipedia, in 2001, the United Nations applied sanctions on the Liberian diamond trade. In 2003, Taylor stepped down as president and, after being exiled to Nigeria, faced trial in The Hague (Johnson was the chief of prosecutions). On July 21, 2006, he pleaded not guilty to crimes against humanity and war crimes, of which he was found guilty in April 2012. On May 30, 2012, he began a 50-year sentence in a high security prison in the United Kingdom.

The Greater Jamestown AM Rotary meets each week from 7:15-8:30 a.m. at the Marvin House in Jamestown. Rotary is an international humanitarian service club with 1.2 million members worldwide. For more information on Rotary go to www.rotary.org. and call Membership Chair Don Ray at 499-4605 for an invitation to experience first hand the fun and service of Rotary.