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The photographs of sad-eyed babies whose hands were hacked off by a vicious rebel force have shocked the world’s conscience. So too have reports that the wealth and weaponry of Sierra Leone’s insurgents come from their control of their country’s diamond fields. The horrifying juxtaposition of severed limbs with twinkling gems has even riveted the attention of the diamond industry. United States consumers have a particular reason to deplore the link between diamond purchases and the funding of psychotic rebel forces in West Africa. Americans reportedly account for 65 percent of the world’s diamond jewelry sales. But at present there is no way for those buying this symbol of love to make an ethical choice. Diamonds, unlike virtually every other import, are not labeled with their country of origin. Almost two years ago, U.S. government officials called for import controls on conflict diamonds, but there was no effective means to administer them. Until now. The diamond industry’s belated efforts to clean up its own act and a pending bill in Congress together may give consumers the chance to buy right. Though it has only recently received international attention, the link between diamonds and oppression is not a new one. Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front was trained, equipped, and enlarged with the help of the current president of Liberia in the early 1990s. (The aid was a quid pro quo for the help given to Charles Taylor during his own grisly struggle for power.) The RUF grew to 15,000 men and boys, formidably armed with everything that money can buy. And it was the RUF’s control of Sierra Leone’s diamond-producing areas, where some of the world’s most beautiful stones are found, that fueled their savage 10-year assault on their own country. Export statistics collected by the nongovernmental group Partnership Africa Canada clearly indicate what has happened. Official exports of diamonds from Sierra Leone have recently averaged 8,500 carats a year, while historically annual production totaled 530,000 carats. Where are the missing diamonds? Many are being laundered through Liberia and, to a lesser extent, Togo and Burkina Faso. According to the Diamond High Council in Antwerp, the value of uncut diamonds officially exported from Sierra Leone dropped from $66 million in 1998 to $31 million in 1999. At the same time, the value of diamond exports from Liberia, which has almost no diamond resources of its own, rose from $268 million to $298 million. Charles Taylor and his cronies reap a handsome profit from selling the RUF’s diamonds and providing weapons in return. Illicit diamonds have similarly bankrolled conflict in Angola, where UNITA insurgents control a significant portion of the diamond-producing areas. But efforts to disrupt that lifeline have had little impact. A 1998 United Nations embargo on Angolan diamonds was largely symbolic because the major importers of rough diamonds — Belgium, India, and Israel — took no action to bar UNITA’s gems from their cutting centers. U.N. sanctions on Sierra Leonean diamonds, enacted in July, would have similarly floundered but for the work of a British-based human rights group. Global Witness threatened a consumer boycott of diamonds in Europe and demanded that the highly centralized diamond industry take the initiative to end the trade in conflict gems. Global Witness appealed to the industry to agree to a tamper-proof system for identifying the mined origin of rough diamonds. In the United States, Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, one of the Hill’s leading human rights activists, began a campaign in early 1999 to require country-of-origin labeling. In November 1999, Hall, joined by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced the Consumer Access to a Responsible Accounting for Trade Act. The CARAT Act would prohibit the importation of diamonds without forgery-proof certificates of origin. South Africa-based De Beers, which is said to control 65 percent of the world diamond market, insisted that it could not and would not provide such documentation. Industry representatives assured Hall that they were not dealing in conflict diamonds, but refused to countenance the tracking and disclosing of origin. Nonetheless, with the Sierra Leone crisis on the front page and editorials denouncing the rebels’ trade, the industry knew that its days of stonewalling were numbered. ROUGH CONTROLS In developing the CARAT Act, Hall faced a number of technical difficulties. The gemstones themselves thwart efforts to ascertain their source. Experts can often identify the origin of a run of rough diamonds, which may still contain alluvial material and other geological markers. But once the stones have been cut and polished, it is virtually impossible to identify the origin of all but a few distinctive gems. Cut and polished diamonds are so hard and so similar that no microscopic scrutiny can reveal mined origin. And no available technology can mark stones with a label that would survive the finishing process. Given the difficulties of sourcing diamonds, Global Witness and industry reformers took a different tack. Rather than try to identify illicit diamonds, why not certify legitimate diamonds and restrict international trade to the latter? A May meeting in Kimberly, South Africa, of diamond-producing countries and industry representatives laid the early foundations for a “Rough Controls” regimen. On July 18, the industry’s trade association, the World Diamond Congress, formally committed itself to the system at its meeting in Antwerp. Rough Controls will work like this: every diamond-mining country will put in place an official, tamper-proof delivery system for exporting newly mined stones. Packets of stones will be entered into a computer registry when they leave designated exit sites in their countries of origin and will travel with their documentation to their place of import, where they will again be logged into a computer. This double-entry of data into an international computer system is a key part of Rough Controls; discrepancies between official exports and registered imports should immediately be visible. The country-of-origin documentation will stay with the uncut stones until they arrive at designated cutting and polishing centers. Those centers, which will be subject to international inspection, have agreed to accept only stones with appropriate documentation. Once inside the centers, the stones will be cut, mixed, traded, sold, etc. They will no longer have their country-of-origin documentation because industry procedures apparently make individual certification near impossible once the rough stones have been removed from their packets. Under Rough Controls, countries that import polished gems will not be told where they were mined; they will only have certification from the cutting centers that the centers had Rough Controls in place. Credibility and confidence will rest on the vigorous operation of a monitoring agency, comprising representatives of governments, industry, international organizations, and nongovernmental groups. This agency will inspect all points in the diamond-delivery chain and blow the whistle as needed. By creating a tamper-proof delivery system for importing rough stones, the diamond industry hopes to reassure consumers that any diamond exported from the cutting centers is clean. Importing countries will bar polished stones from countries that do not have Rough Controls, and “chain of warranties” certification will accompany the diamonds. The World Diamond Congress also announced that anyone dealing in conflict stones will be expelled from the industry for life. The weak link in the scheme, of course, is the problem of transshipment. Even if every aspect of Rough Controls were in place, a corrupt government could still put its official imprimatur on conflict diamonds smuggled into the country and then ship them off to cutting centers in flawless packaging. Unless exports grossly exceeded the country’s own mining capacity, who would be the wiser? Proponents of the Antwerp regimen respond that diamond experts in the cutting centers will recognize when rough stones are improperly sourced. And since trading in illicit stones is grounds for expulsion from the industry, there is a strong incentive to cooperate. MOVING THE INDUSTRY Notwithstanding the smuggling issue, the leading groups that have worked on conflict diamonds, Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada, are very supportive of the outcome at Antwerp. And yet, it is important to remember that without certificates of mined origin attached to polished gems imported into the United States, American consumers will still not be able to make choices about their diamond purchases. Nor will the Customs Service be able to implement directly U.N. sanctions against Sierra Leonean or Angolan conflict diamonds. While welcoming the diamond industry’s progress, Rep. Hall is understandably reluctant to give up his original vision of a “birth certificate” for every imported diamond over a certain size. He suggests that if the industry faced the loss of 65 percent of its exports of diamond jewelry, it would figure out how to retool its operations so that country-of-origin labeling could be retained throughout the finishing process. If the Rough Controls scheme does not move forward quickly or it fails to stop the trade in conflict diamonds, Hall will hold the threat of diamond birth certificates like a sword of Damocles over the industry and diamond-exporting countries. During the August recess, he and his staff reworked the CARAT Act to reflect recent developments. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13 before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade. On the other side of the Hill, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has placed a rider on an appropriations bill, now pending in conference, that requires diamond imports to include country-of-origin labeling. The Clinton administration, for its part, is supportive of the Antwerp agreement, but also appears to favor some form of import labeling. Last month Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said, “I hope that people buying a beautiful stone will start asking questions and be sure not to buy unless they see a certificate of origin.” And in July, Physicians for Human Rights and an informal coalition of 70 humanitarian, religious, refugee, and development organizations released an appeal to the diamond industry. They called for the World Diamond Congress to announce an outright ban on Sierra Leonean stones transshipped through Liberia, Togo, and Burkina Faso, in addition to its commitment to Rough Controls. While the diamond merchants should be commended for their recent actions, the fact remains that for many decades the industry (or unscrupulous elements within it) has profited enormously from its relationship with some of the most brutal forces on earth. It was the atrocities in Sierra Leone that moved the nongovernmental community to say out loud what the industry knows well: diamonds have no intrinsic value, and they are not rare. If the public learns to associate them with hacked-off limbs and the rape of children, the notion of diamonds as a symbol of love could evaporate forever. So the industry’s recent action was very much in its own interest. It can advance its own good even further by immediately announcing an embargo on the importation of rough diamonds from Liberia, Togo, and Burkina Faso and by pushing for passage of the CARAT Act this year. Holly Burkhalter is advocacy director for Physicians for Human Rights.

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