'Conflict' diamonds aren't forever

The global campaign to curb the sale of "conflict" diamonds, and thus prevent war in Africa, is near collapse. Only a concerted effort by Washington can rescue the 32-nation negotiations that once seemed so promising and effective.

Although only 4 percent of the world's rough diamonds come from the bitter conflict zones of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone, approximately $500 million to $800 million is involved. (Nonwar diamonds are mined primarily in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and Russia.) About $1 million buys approximately 90,000 high-quality repeating rifles and ammunition. Hence the critical importance of cash from diamonds.

Without illicit profits from the digging of diamonds in the mostly alluvial fields of Angola, Congo, and Sierra Leone, civil wars would be difficult to sustain. As the rebels of UNITA - the Union for the Total Independence of Angola - have in recent months lost authority in many of Angola's diamondiferous areas, their available cash has shrunk, and attacks on government forces have slowed.

In Sierra Leone, where limbless orphans testify to the ferocity of the internal combat over diamonds, rebels no longer have sole control over the diamond fields. That country's long-running war has thus largely ended, although some combat has moved into neighboring Guinea (which also has diamonds) and Liberia. Many of Sierra Leone's diamonds have found their way into government hands in Liberia and on to markets in Europe.

For 16 months, a remarkable coalition of far-sighted diamond industrialists and a hardy band of small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have tried to develop a certification-and-passport system to differentiate nonwar diamonds from those fueling rebel movements in Africa. To avert consumer boycotts, the industry-NGO plan creates a paper trail guaranteeing the nonconflict nature of diamonds at all stages of a stone's progress from mining to sorting, to cutting and polishing, to sale as jewelry.

Doing so would accomplish two purposes: It would legitimize consumer purchases of nonwar stones. And it would depress the price that nonlegitimate diamonds could command on the world market, thus reducing the amount of cash available to buy arms and keep wars going. As nonlegitimate diamonds were squeezed out of most trading networks, so the mining of diamonds in conflict areas might gradually become unprofitable.

About half of the world's retail diamonds (by value) are sold in the United States, and only 28 percent in Asia and 13 percent in Europe. Legislation that is languishing in Congress would provide standards by which customs officials could differentiate conflict and nonconflict diamonds at ports of entry. Now there is no basis on which to bar rough diamonds, even those from countries (like Gambia) that mine no diamonds.

The proposed and bipartisan Clean Diamonds Trade Act, sponsored by Reps. Tony Hall, Frank Wolf, and many others - and very similar to a Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Mike DeWine, Dick Durbin, and Russ Feingold - would halt the import of diamonds from any country that is not part of the proposed international rough-diamond-certification process. Unfortunately, given Washington's other priorities, and concerns in the US Treasury and Customs Service about the practicalities of halting diamonds at borders, the Clean Diamonds Trade Act may not pass quickly, if at all. Executive leadership is needed.

The NGOs, the jewelry industry, and the diamond producers strongly support the US legislation. De Beers Ltd., which mines 50 percent of all rough diamonds and controls 65 percent of the world's diamonds trade, backs both the legislation and the certification system.

The negotiations to craft "passports" for diamonds are known as the Kimberley Process. After meetings this year and last, the industry-NGO coalition believed it had persuaded the exporting and importing countries to sign on and cooperate. At a meeting in September, however, the European Union decided that the proposed plan could breach EU arrangements. Representatives of Washington and some African nations were also hesitant. At its meeting on Oct. 29 in Luanda, Angola, the Kimberley Process could unravel completely.

No one wants more killings because of diamonds. Everyone who produces and sells diamonds is united in trying to ostracize rogue, war-driven stones. It would seem simple to pass US legislation and finalize the Kimberley Process, but without serious efforts on the part of the US Treasury and the State Department, diamonds will continue to provide the basis for war in Africa.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict, and president of the World Peace Foundation.

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