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Blood Diamonds Sparkle with Evil
Published on Monday, December 18, 2006 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Blood Diamonds Sparkle with Evil
The illegal trade in these gems fuels terrorism and war - but consumers can do something about it
by Clarence Page
 

Nothing concentrates your mind out in the back roads of rural Africa like having a kid from some rebel army hold you at gunpoint with a large Russian-made assault rifle.

Rory Anderson, a senior Africa policy adviser in Washington for World Vision, a Christian aid and development organization, knows that experience firsthand. It happened to her and a carload of colleagues in 2003 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the border with Uganda.

"Suddenly, I was both frightened and broken-hearted," Anderson recalled in an interview. "He was a kid. He could have been my baby brother. I could have turned him across my knee and spanked him. Except that he had that gun. And the power."

Fortunately, the long and tense face-off ended peacefully. The kid with the big gun noticed the markings on the Land Rover. It identified Anderson and her companions as nongovernment aid workers.

He let them pass. Another ugly scene was averted.

With memories like that, Anderson told me, she had no problem believing the cruelty that less-tutored viewers might find too bizarre to comprehend in the new movie "Blood Diamond," an adventure-in-Africa thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film offers a welcome public education in the illegal "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" trade. That's the United Nations' term for uncut gems that rebel militias illegally traffic in to pay for their wars, quite often against innocent civilians.

The conflict in Sierra Leone, with its well-publicized amputations of men, women and children's hands and feet, may have looked like a war, but it also was a big jewelry heist.

It is important that Americans, who buy more than half of the world's diamonds, know where the glimmer on their pinkies or earlobes may originate. The Sierra Leone war depicted in the movie officially ended in 2002. But similar battles for diamonds continue in remote areas of the Congo and Ivory Coast, among other places.

Many people of conscience would like to know whether the diamonds they are purchasing are helping to fund more atrocities, but they do not have the foggiest notion of how to go about it. I turned to Anderson for advice. As a lobbyist for World Vision, she helped write the Clean Diamond Trade Act of 2003 that set up the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme to rid the international market of blood diamonds.

When the Kimberley system is working right, you should be able to ask your jeweler to provide certified evidence that a gem is clean from factory to ring finger. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, confirmed that smugglers easily penetrate the supply chain with diamonds, because they're small, portable and invisible to airport metal detectors.

And too many jewelers still give you a blank stare if you ask for diamond certification. When Amnesty International and Global Witness, a nongovernmental investigative organization, two years ago surveyed 246 stores in 50 cities, 110 shops refused outright to take the survey. Of those that did, only 27 percent said they had a policy on conflict diamonds, only 13 percent provided warranties to their customers as a standard practice and 83 percent of respondents said customers rarely or never asked.

Since 99 percent of the industry's $60-billion annual trade is believed to be legal, aid groups such as World Vision are not calling for a boycott of all diamonds. After all, most residents of diamond-mining regions are desperately poor and need the income and development legitimate mining brings.

The best action for the new Congress to take would be to make sure the existing blood-diamond legislation is fully implemented. Spot checks, audits, data-sharing, receipt inspections and other safeguards have not been fully enforced.

The best pressure consumers can apply is at the retail level. Ask for certification before you buy a diamond. If the store can't provide it, find one that does. Think of it as a blow against terrorism.

Evidence gathered by the United Nations Special Court in Sierra Leone indicates that some illegal diamonds from that country fed the coffers of al-Qaida and other international evildoers before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. To paraphrase an old song, diamonds can be a terrorist's best friend, too.

Clarence Page is a syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist based in Washington.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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