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Why Naomi Campbell's testimony at The Hague matters

Insights the supermodel may provide on a blood diamond she allegedly received from Liberia's former leader could help prevent new atrocities, this time in Sudan.

August 05, 2010|By Elisa Massimino

Today, The Hague will occupy a spotlight usually reserved for Paris, Milan and New York. Supermodel Naomi Campbell is scheduled to testify at the trial of Charles Taylor, the notorious former Liberian president who is charged with crimes against humanity — including murder, sexual slavery and violence, and enslavement — as well as acts of terrorism and torture.

How does a supermodel become a witness at an international tribunal? In 1997, Taylor allegedly gave Campbell the gift of a blood diamond — stones used to fund civil wars and other conflicts. Prosecutors seek Campbell's testimony to help establish the timing of Taylor's possession of diamonds from Sierra Leone, which he allegedly exchanged for weapons that armed Sierra Leonean rebels — including teenagers and children drugged and forced to fight — who used them in brutal attacks against civilians.

In public, Campbell has been hostile to any discussion about the case. Video of her slamming a news camera after a reporter asked her about the diamond has circulated online, and she protested when Oprah Winfrey raised the issue with her in an interview.

Protestations aside, Campbell's testimony matters because how mass atrocities are financed matters. Mass murder doesn't pay for itself. In Taylor's case, prosecutors charge that diamonds financed the purchase of weapons that killed many thousands of people and maimed and terrorized thousands more.

The case against Taylor underscores the point that perpetrators of atrocities don't act alone. They depend on third parties who, knowingly or unwittingly, enable them by providing the means to carry out their crimes. Identifying enablers and disrupting their activities can hamper or halt a perpetrator.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed groups that murder and rape civilians trade minerals such as gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum taken from mines under their control for weapons, money and other resources. Some of these minerals end up in cellphones and computers sold in the United States.

Recently, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs wrote: "We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict [free] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem."

Jobs is right. Conflict minerals do present companies and consumers with a difficult problem. But we don't have to wait for a new chemical invention to begin to solve it.

The United States has taken another approach. Tucked into the Wall Street reform bill that President Obama signed last month is a provision requiring U.S. companies to submit an annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain minerals from Congo or neighboring countries. Companies, like Apple, will also be required to report on steps they are taking to exclude conflict minerals from their supply chains.

While tackling the problem of conflict minerals in Congo is vitally important, the United States' response to this problem must go beyond the gems and mineral trade and address all supply chains for atrocities — whether they carry the means of violence into a country or export goods that can fund such violence.

In the coming months, one place where we might be able cut off the supply chain and stop genocide before it happens again is in Sudan. While the people of the Darfur region in the western part of Sudan have been the victims of atrocities for years, there are growing concerns about the risk of new violence in southern Sudan early next year. In January, residents of the south will decide by referendum whether to secede. Earlier this year, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told Congress that, of all the countries facing a risk of mass violence, "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."

To prevent a genocide there, the Obama administration must engage with parties on the ground but should also pressure third parties, such as China and Russia, that have supplied arms and ammunition to the government of Sudan in the past — despite an arms embargo and even when it was clear that the government was involved in atrocities in Darfur. In March, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, decried "cavalier violations" of the arms embargo on Darfur and said the U.N. Security Council's Sudan Sanctions Committee needs to take action to stop them.

The intelligence community must also allocate resources to gathering and analyzing intelligence on third-party enablers so that policymakers can disrupt supply chains. In addition, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control needs sufficient resources to properly investigate people involved in embargo violations.

We may never understand what makes a human being like Charles Taylor capable of planning and executing such brutality. But by targeting the enablers of atrocities, we can make it more difficult and expensive for would-be perpetrators to carry out their crimes, and we may thereby help prevent violence against civilians.

Though the British supermodel may not have intended to bring the issue of genocide's supply chain into the spotlight, if leaders can begin to address the underlying issues her testimony raises, she may help ensure that The Hague won't have to hold a trial for future genocide in southern Sudan.

Elisa Massimino is president and chief executive of Human Rights First.

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