WASHINGTON — Diamonds, as the industry advertises, may be the "international symbol of love" to a young couple shopping for an engagement ring. But thousands of miles away from the jewelry store, they represent something quite different: the exploitation of natural resources by brutal rebel groups and their accomplices.
Americans can help stop civil wars in Africa by refusing to buy "conflict diamonds."
Last week in Belgium, the World Diamond Congress voted to develop strict guidelines to prevent the trafficking of "conflict diamonds," gems mined by rebel groups to finance wars that terrorize civilians and wreak havoc on struggling democracies. The new industry plan is expected to include tracking numbers for each lot of diamonds, labeled at the mine and entered into an international database that would be updated each time the lot is sold, traded, cut or set.
Don't expect special "rebel free" tags on engagement rings anytime soon. The industry concedes it's likely to take at least a year before consumers can be assured their "once-in-a-lifetime purchase" didn't help underwrite a civil war. But consumers shouldn't overlook their moral responsibility to ask jewelers about "conflict diamonds."
The industry move was applauded by international humanitarian and human rights groups which, along with the UN and Western governments, have been pressuring the industry to stop the flow of "conflict diamonds."
A coalition of more than 60 US civic and religious organizations, represented in Antwerp by World Vision and Physicians for Human Rights, presented demands for industry reforms. And these groups will monitor whether the industry's reform efforts are meaningful.
Americans purchase 65 percent of retail diamonds sold worldwide yearly - worth $4 billion. In doing so, they also have subsidized violence by rebels in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Smuggled and illicit "conflict diamonds" account for 10 to 15 percent of diamond jewelry sold internationally annually, US State Department and independent experts say. This diamond trade defies UN bans on exports by brutal rebel groups like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, whose leaders circumvent the embargoes by laundering diamonds through neighboring countries such as Liberia.
Such embargoes have been undermined not only by accommodating African governments, but by lax controls at international trading centers. It has been an open industry secret that Liberia was laundering smuggled diamonds because it exported an "astoundingly high number of diamonds that bore no relationship to its own limited resource base," according to Partnership Africa Canada, an advocacy group based in Ottawa.
Liberia served as a conduit for gems mined by the RUF which, under the leadership of Foday Sankoh, had been terrorizing Sierra Leone for most of the past decade. Now under arrest, Sankoh built a rebel army through such methods as kidnapping children and forcing them to murder their parents. According to senior State Department officials, the RUF, in collaboration with Liberia, continues to use diamond profits to finance the war. Liberian President Charles Taylor denies all of these allegations.
Thousands of civilians in Sierra Leone, like Damba Koroma, 7, and her mother, Fina, have been maimed or raped by Sankoh's rebels. Damba was 4 when a group of rebels invaded her village of Konibayam, 200 miles northeast of Freetown. To punish the villagers' "crime" of supporting a democratic government, the rebels cut off the left hands of mother and daughter.
Sankoh's RUF maims civilians because it is more effective than merely killing them; an amputee is a constant reminder to a community of the rebels' power.
Diamond sales fund this behavior. Up until last week, the diamond industry had failed to recognize publicly its responsibility. Its reforms - to impose realistic and practical controls on its own members and to initiate a comprehensive, forgery-proof system for certifying countries from which diamonds are mined - will make a difference.
Soon, it will be up to consumers to demonstrate their responsibility to help prevent savage and brutal civil wars by including an additional factor in the traditional questions related to diamond purchases: cut, clarity, color, carat, and conflict.
*Bruce Wilkinson, who worked in West Africa for 15 years, is senior vice president for international programs of World Vision, the international Christian humanitarian agency.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society