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Conflict diamonds -- Americans can stop the damage they do
Published on Monday, June 12, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
'Conflict Diamonds':
Americans Can Stop The Damage They Do
This is a story about diamonds -- "conflict diamonds." These stones come from war-ravaged Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo. Far from being anyone's best friend, they have proven a powerful enemy of the innocent thousands killed, wounded and maimed in those wars.

Why is this of concern to Americans? Because Americans buy 65 percent of all retail diamonds. Because if Americans begin to insist on proof that those diamonds are not washed with African blood, they can become a powerful force for bringing peace to these horribly brutalized peoples.

Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, has introduced legislation that would require certificates on all diamonds, detailing their place of origin. The United Nations and the British government are pushing for tighter controls as well. Opinions differ on whether Hall's approach is practical, but his legislation sends a strong message to the diamond industry: Find ways to clean up your trade or we will.

"Diamonds are forever," says diamond cartel DeBeers. But human lives and human limbs aren't. Consider Maria, an 8-month-old baby girl in Sierra Leone. In an act of unfathomable cruelty, her arm was hacked off by the "rebel" terrorists of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF mob has sought to impose its will on Sierra Leone by chopping off thousands of civilian hands, feet and ears. Thousands more people have simply been slaughtered and left to rot in village streets. Men, women, children, civilian, soldier; it makes no difference to the RUF.

What's the diamond connection? The RUF has kept itself well supplied with arms, vehicles, food and other supplies by mining and smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of illicit diamonds into a world market that is determined to see no evil.

It's the same in Angola, where illicit diamonds have funded the 25-year-old war waged by Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA forces. By one estimate, UNITA earned $4 billion from its illegal sales of diamonds between 1992 and 1998. It used that money to undermine the Angola peace process and to purchase new arms.

The international diamond industry has taken several steps to stop the trade in illicit diamonds, but they are puny steps. Much more could be done, beginning with an acknowledgment of responsibility.

Take the DeBeers cartel. It mines 50 percent of the world's diamonds and purchases about 80 percent of those offered for sale on open markets. More than $4 billion in diamonds are stockpiled in DeBeers offices; it buys and sells in quantities designed to keep diamond prices at an artificially high rate. All told, it controls 85 percent of the world trade. (Where is trust buster Joel Klein when we need him?)

DeBeers insists it is impossible to tell where uncut diamonds originate (others disagree) but simultaneously insists it buys no conflict diamonds. How can those statements both be true? Well, DeBeers says, it has closed its offices in the controversial areas of Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo.

But here's how it works: The Ivory Coast diamond industry closed down in the 1980s, but Belgium recorded imports of more than 1.5 million carats in gemstones from the Ivory Coast annually in the mid-'90s. Those stones were most likely smuggled to the Ivory Coast from Angola and Sierra Leone.

Liberia produces about 100,000 carats a year. But between 1994 and 1998, more than 31 million carats were exported to the world diamond center in Antwerp. These too were smuggled stones, fueling not only the violence in their countries of origin, but in Liberia.

Sierra Leone officially exported only 8,500 carats in 1998, but Belgium recorded 770,000 carats coming from that country. You've got to ask: Why did Belgium take them, and where did they go?

The answers seem pretty straightforward: Belgium let them in because Antwerp is afraid of losing market share to Tel Aviv and Mumbai (formerly Bombay). And it's impossible to believe many of those stones didn't end up with DeBeers. Otherwise, the price would have tumbled.

If this trade in illicit diamonds caused harm only to soldiers, it would be bad enough. But for every soldier killed in these African wars, death and injury comes to scores of innocents like baby Maria.

What can you do? Push Congress and this year's crop of congressional candidates to put pressure on the international diamond trade. Because the United States is the premier retail market for diamonds, it has the clout to force a cleanup. Belgium and the major diamond trading companies seem determined to turn a blind eye. The United States must force that eye open.

Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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