Toward people-friendly diamonds

Listen to government and diamond industry representatives, and one could get the impression that the problem of diamonds from African war zones making their way into American jewelry has been soundly resolved.

For years, rebel groups in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have raided diamond mines and sold the bounty into the mainstream market, using the proceeds to continue funding their brutal conflicts.

The sordid marriage between murdering bandits and the captains of the romance industry came to light more than two years ago. But it took the revelation that Al Qaeda terrorists may have laundered millions of dollars using Sierra Leone "conflict diamonds" to spur legislative action aimed at ending the trade once and for all.

Sadly, the recommendations put forth by the US Congress and members of the so-called Kimberley Process fall far short of ensuring that diamond engagement rings are not tainted with innocent African blood. Late in 2001, the Kimberley Process – a panel of NGOs, diamond industry representatives, and officials from diamond importing and exporting countries – agreed on a set of protocols that will theoretically ensure that diamonds sold around the world are from conflict-free zones. A uniform set of certificates would trace diamonds' steps from their discovery in tropical mines to their sale in suburban shopping malls as talismans of love and honor.

In reality, the proposals fall far short of their stated goals and will likely do little more than make conflict diamonds harder to detect as they move across borders. Among the many deficits of the Kimberley recommendations – upon which US legislation being considered in the Senate is based – are the lack of a reporting body that will ensure participating countries are complying with the new rules, weak enforcement mechanisms that seem tailored more to the concerns of the World Trade Organization than ending the bloody trade, and a woeful lack of diamond-production standards for countries (notably Liberia) notorious for laundering stones smuggled from conflict zones.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the product the new rules hope to regulate: Diamonds are by far the most valuable commodity by weight known to man. Millions of dollars' worth can be smuggled anywhere in or on the human body and they are almost impossible to trace. Complete uniformity in a $6 billion industry involving pebbles – in which transactions take place in some of the most remote corners of the planet – seems a distant possibility. Regulators and customs officials simply cannot be present for the discovery of every stone exported from African countries to European cutting and polishing centers. Thus, the temptation for legitimate licensed exporters to pad their otherwise conflict- free parcels with cheap and plentiful rebel goods remains a confounding obstacle.

Indeed, it seems that the only sure-fire way to eradicate the problem of conflict diamonds is to end the conflicts where diamonds are found. Earlier this year, the United Nations declared peace in Sierra Leone, a country from which rebels of the Revolutionary United Front smuggled an estimated $25 million to $125 million worth of diamonds per year into mainstream channels. With the demobilization of some 50,000 combatants completed in January and free and fair elections held May 14, the issue of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone has been rendered moot. Although common smuggling to avoid taxes may never be eradicated, if the current peace holds there will no longer be such a thing as conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone.

The lesson that needs to be learned is that far-flung, bloody conflicts can and do have tangible impacts throughout the world that may not be immediately evident. Al Qaeda exploited developed countries' disdain for intervening in a morass such as Sierra Leone, and began laundering millions of dollars through the rebels' sale of diamonds as early as 1998. When the US and its allies began freezing the terrorists' financial assets around the world immediately following Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden kept up to several millions of dollars worth of highly liquid and virtually untraceable diamonds bought from rebels in Sierra Leone.

Diligent intervention in other war-torn diamond-producing countries – either by the UN or a yet-to-materialize competent pan-African peacekeeping body – will do far more to rescue diamonds' tarnished image than any series of customs documents could ever hope. And in the process, it will save millions of Africans from further suffering. Intervention will provide the basis for a much-needed peaceful dialogue about how African countries still struggling in the wake of colonialism can exploit their diamond wealth not for the sake of war and greed, but for their often-ignored struggles for peace and harmony.

• Greg Campbell is the author of 'Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones' (Westview Press, September 2002).

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