Diamond evil on your finger

War in Sierra Leone now a PR nightmare for gems industry


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Those diamond rings and earrings being bought up for spring formals and the like may be fuelling “rebel” insurgencies in Africa. NAnd, in all likelihood, buying arms and munitions for groups like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, which human rights watchers and NGOs say is responsible for some of the most horrific human rights violations on record.

Now, Amnesty International has entered the fray. AI secretary-general Pierre Sane chose the annual general meeting in Hamilton of the group’s Canadian section on the weekend to announce the launch of its campaign.

A growin number of NGOs claim that diamonds from mines controlled by rebel groups like the RUF are finding their way into mainstream diamond markets, with sales going to finance the purchase of military arms, despite a UN arms embargo.

De Beers Consolidated Mines of South Africa, the world’s largest purchaser of diamonds, and the Diamond High Council, the Antwerp, Belgium-based industry association that controls some 75 per cent of the global trade in diamonds, have been singled out for criticism by AI.

Amnesty, which is calling for an independent audit of De Beers “to allay international concerns about the source of diamonds in the world market,” says not enough is being done to assure consumers they’re not buying so-called “conflict diamonds” from rebel-controlled areas.

Amnesty says diamond fingerprinting technology could go a long way toward identifying and tracking the gems to their source, a measure industry sources say is “impractical.”

“Governments and the diamond industry have a responsibility to ensure that diamonds are not being used to fund the transfer of military, security or police equipment, weaponry, personnel or training to rebel forces in Sierra Leone,” says Sane.

De Beers has announced that it is no longer purchasing diamonds from rebel-controlled areas, and is putting notices to that effect in its diamond shipments. Industry sources say, however, that it is next to impossible to ensure that “conflict diamonds” are not getting into legitimate parcels.


Illegally traded

“We are as keen as the next to stop illegally traded and mined diamonds from washing into the legal business,” says Roger van Eeghen, De Beers’ manager of corporate affairs in London, England.

“But total control is impossible. We believe it is up to the government of the country concerned to put in certain measures and laws to make it more difficult for people to mine illegally.”

Van Eeghen admits that De Beers’ ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, has been working overtime lately to put out the PR fires caused by the current “dirty diamonds” controversy. Even the gem trade magazine JCK editorialized recently that the industry could be doing more, not just in Sierra Leone but also in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Angola.

Indeed. De Beers has argued that it’s essential to buy “conflict diamonds” to maintain steady world market prices.

International efforts to certify that diamonds are not coming from mines in rebel-held areas have recently been stepped up.

But the London, England-based NGO Global Witness, which has been among De Beers’ strongest critics, says the measures haven’t prevented diamonds from rebel-controlled areas from making their way onto the market through third countries, including Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Guinea.


Devastating impacts

Global Witness estimates that as much as 20 per cent of the $6.8 billion (U.S.) annual trade in diamonds comes from rebel-controlled African mines.

De Beers doesn’t deny that “conflict diamonds” are making their way into the mainstream market. The company’s own 1999 stats show $255 million (U.S.) worth of gems coming from conflict areas in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

De Beers contends, however, that “conflict diamonds” make up less than 4 per cent of the entire world trade, not the 20 per cent some NGOs are suggesting.

It’s difficult to say which estimate is closer to the truth, because diamond imports are tracked by “country of import,” not where they were actually pulled from the ground — another bone of contention for Amnesty, which wants to make it mandatory for traders to declare the source of their diamonds.

Stats collected by the Ottawa-based Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) show that a number of countries that do not even produce diamonds have sizable export stats. These are thought to be transfer points in the illicit gem trade.

A probe concluded by an expert panel of the United Nations Security Council in March suggests the trade in illicit diamonds is more widespread than the industry would have the public believe.

The panel, headed by Robert Fowler, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, found serious breaches of sanctions against diamonds from UNITA-held territory in Angola.

The panel also found extensive evidence of diamond smuggling through Namibia, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Rwanda and South Africa.

The panel was alarmed by how easy it is for smuggled diamonds to find their way into the Antwerp market.

“The extremely lax controls… facilitate and perhaps even encourage illegal trading activity,” the report says, and adds that the attitude that prevails among traders “would seem to be largely influenced by the often-expressed fear that stricter regulation would simply cause traders to take their business elsewhere.”


Grey market

There’s also no accounting, the panel noted, for the “grey market” of some 5,000 commercial diamond dealers, jewellers, manufacturers and brokers not registered with the Diamond High Council.

The UN panel’s report has not sat well with the council, whose spokesperson, Mark Vanvockstael, tells NOW from Antwerp: “They’re singling out Antwerp, (but) the equation is a little bigger than that. We’re not the only diamond centre. The monitoring they claim we should do better is not in place in their own countries. What are other countries doing?”

But Vanvockstael answers his own question. He says he’s just heard British foreign minister Robin Cook announce that the UK will soon be pushing for sanctions against the RUF in Sierra Leone.

Vanvockstael says U.S. State Department officials he had talks with at a diamond show in Las Vegas this week also told him sanctions were likely on the way.

enzom@nowtoronto.com

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