Diamonds aren't her best friends

by Richard Andrews

Global Witness senior campaigner Annie Dunnebacke, BA'01, in east Congo

Sometimes a lecture can alter the course of your life. An on-campus presentation about the tragic effects of landmines led Annie Dunnebacke, BA’01, from the cubicles of the McLennan Library to the world of warlords, gunrunners and blood diamonds.

Dunnebecke was moved by accounts of suffering caused by the explosive remnants of wars around the world. She joined a campaign set up by the Canadian government, the Red Cross and other organizations working to aid injured survivors and eliminate the use of weapons that kill and maim civilians long after a conflict has ended.

Involvement in that campaign started her on a journey to improving human rights and working conditions in troubled countries around the world.

“After majoring in history and Russian, I focused my postgraduate studies on conflict resolution and peace building,” says Dunnebacke. “Then I worked with various NGOs (non-government organizations) on issues such as the abuse of women’s rights in Croatia and the use of child soldiers in central Africa.”

Dunnebacke is now based in London, England as a senior campaigner for Global Witness - a high-profile human rights group best known for its efforts to stamp out the trade in blood diamonds, also known as conflict diamonds.

The non-government group estimates that past wars and rebellions funded by these illicit gems have killed or displaced millions of people in African countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola and Côte d'Ivoire.

“We need to clean up the diamond trade more effectively,” says Dunnebacke. “However, the political will for reform isn’t there.”

It’s not just the trade in blood diamonds that concerns her, but also how they’re found.

“In countries such as Zimbabwe, the diamonds are often mined in dangerous conditions,” she says.

“In many cases children do backbreaking work sifting gravel or working in unstable pits for about a dollar a day. There’s a massive paradox between how diamonds are mined and how they’re marketed.”

Dunnebacke and her group helped Hollywood portray that paradox by acting as informal advisors for the Oscar-nominated 2006 blockbuster Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I was invited to the London premiere,” she says. “The film was an accurate portrayal of what happened in Sierra Leone during the 1990s.”

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Global Witness has also been recognized for investigating the conditions and trade of natural resources other than diamonds.

The international trade in diamonds results in some children doing back-breaking labour for a dollar a day.

Dodging conflict zones, Dunnebacke has visited Congo, a focus of international condemnation over its exploitation of rare earths such as coltan, a vital mineral for cellphones, computers and other electronic devices.

“Sometimes our operations are covert and we have to use hidden cameras and a cover identity to expose something bad that’s happening,” says Dunnebacke.

“It can be dangerous and you have to be careful in eastern Congo. We’ve had colleagues who’ve been arrested, but so far nothing tragic.”

Dunnebacke admits that it’s sometimes unsettling to readjust to the safety and comfort of London after her disturbing experiences in Africa.

“It’s really hard to meet the people doing the digging, hear their stories and then purport to speak on their behalf when you return,” she says.

“However those conversations make you feel reassured that what you’re doing thousands of miles away is actually helping. It’s also important to keep alive what you’ve experienced, to remember to keep on naming, shaming and campaigning when you come back to the office and start working on the policy side of things.”

As a committed and articulate media spokesperson for Global Witness, Dunnebacke says the risks and challenges of her job are outweighed by the rewards. For example, the Congolese government recently directed mineral companies to carry out checks, in line with OECD guidelines, to ensure their trade is not financing warring parties in the east of the country.

“Leading an international campaign to set standards for companies that are buying minerals has led to some changes in Congo,” says Dunnebecke. “It’s something we’re proud of.”

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