The illegal trade in “blood diamonds” smuggled from Sierra Leone helped fuel a brutal civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002 and caused an estimated 50,000 deaths. But so far, no one has been held to account for creating the system that moved stones from hellish mines in eastern Sierra Leone to the world’s diamond markets. Regrettably, that prospect is now even less likely, following the sudden death in a Belgian jail on September 28 of Michel Desaedeleer.
Desaedeleer, an international businessman who held dual U.S. and Belgian nationality, was arrested in August last year on suspicion of involvement in the war crimes of pillage and inhumane treatment and complicity in enslavement as a crime against humanity, among other charges.
The arrest warrant against Desaedeleer, served at Malaga airport in Spain, was issued in connection with a Belgian federal investigation into a complaint launched in 2011 by five Sierra Leonean citizens, who were forced to work in diamond mines in Sierra Leone during the war. The complaint contains sworn testimony linking Desaedeleer to the diamond trade, establishes his physical presence at diamond mines in Kono in eastern Sierra Leone, and establishes his awareness of and involvement in activities taking place at the mines. The case was built around evidence gathered by two non-governmental organizations (NGOs): Swiss-based Civitas Maxima and the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL), based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Belgian courts claimed jurisdiction over the case because Desaedeleer was a Belgian citizen; on the basis of active nationality jurisdiction he could be tried in Belgium for certain crimes committed anywhere in the world. In addition, Belgium has a civil law system, which allowed individuals to file an initial criminal complaint, which was subsequently taken up by federal prosecutors. The five plaintiffs who filed the complaint are direct victims of the crimes that were being investigated, and they are represented by Belgian human rights lawyer Luc Walleyn.
This case is significant because Desaedeleer was the only Western actor charged with international crimes in relation to the conflict in Sierra Leone. During the war, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels used forced labor to mine diamonds in Sierra Leone. They then brought the diamonds to neighboring Liberia, with the support of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. From there, the diamonds were sold into the international market and the profits were used to support RUF activities. Although the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was established in 2000, convicted both RUF rebel leaders and Taylor of international crimes, it did not pursue charges against those who helped fuel the war through the trade of “blood diamonds.”
Desaedeleer’s case, according to Civitas Maxima and CARL, “would have been the first trial in history to deal with international crimes allegedly committed in furtherance of natural resource trade.”
Western businessmen have been charged with international crimes before: a court in the Netherlands found Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat guilty of war crimes in 2005 for delivering materials used to make chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Another Dutch citizen, Guus Kouwenhoven, was charged in 2005 in the Netherlands with war crimes and supplying illegal arms to Taylor in the context of the Liberian civil war. Kouwenhoven was ultimately found not guilty of war crimes but convicted on arms smuggling. Both the prosecution and defense appealed the original verdict, and his case is still before the Court of Appeal.
However, Desaedeleer’s case broke new ground because it would have been the first time since the end of World War II that a businessman had been charged with the war crime of pillage, what Open Society Justice Initiative anticorruption expert Ken Hurwitz calls “theft in the context of armed conflict.” International criminal cases against business people and corporations are challenging to bring because it is often difficult to obtain proof that the individual or corporate actor intended to cause the crimes resulting from the underlying conflict. This case would have been an opportunity to set a precedent that those who profit from wars can no longer expect impunity.
The same day as his death, a Belgian newspaper reported that Desaedeleer was to be formally charged in the coming weeks, so it was likely that his trial would have begun in early 2017, six years after the victims filed their complaint. Desaedeleer denied any involvement in the crimes charged.
With Desaedeleer’s death, the opportunities for justice against Western or corporate actors involved in the “blood diamond” trade during the war in Sierra Leone appear to be fading. However, Alain Werner, executive director of Civitas Maxima, said that they are still “looking at other possible leads and investigations.”
Civitas Maxima and CARL also noted that “the arrest of Michel Desaedeleer, his imprisonment and the fact that his trial was scheduled to commence in a few months represent a victory for the victims who courageously filed a complaint against him and have never ceased in their fight for justice.”
Despite the evident disappointment for the plaintiffs, Hurwitz notes that the Desaedeleer case shows how committed NGOs can use both international and local law and jurisdiction to pursue individuals who have illegally profited from, and helped perpetuate, resource-fueled conflicts. The Open Society Justice Initiative, for instance, has been supporting legal efforts in the UK, Switzerland, and the Channel Islands to hold to account those involved in the pillaging of gold during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Hurwitz, “the Desaedeleer case moved the law forward, towards a place where those who profit illegally from conflict and systematic abuse of civilian populations will not be allowed to go scott free.”