Diamond industry OKs steps to stop rebels' gem-for-guns trading

Polishing its image

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

ANTWERP, Belgium -- The international diamond industry sought to put the sparkle back into its image Wednesday, adopting strict new measures to stop rebel groups who trade gems for guns to fight some of Africa's most vicious civil wars.

Responding to increasing pressure from governments and human rights groups, the World Diamond Congress approved a package of measures to track diamonds from the mine to the jewelry store. The industry promised severe penalties for dealers who break the rules and buy or sell so-called ''blood diamonds.''

''Any trader that has dealt with these illicit diamonds will be banned out of the business,'' said Peter Meeus, head of the High Diamond Council in Antwerp, the world's largest diamond trading center. ''We don't want these people, we don't need them.''

The diamond trade, worth some $6 billion a year, has been tarnished by revelations that rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola have bought their weapons through diamond sales and gone on to commit atrocities in their fight against elected governments. Lax controls at trading centers such as Antwerp, Tel Aviv and Bombay have allowed the rebels to make millions of dollars, according to human rights groups and a detailed U.N. report.

Campaigners against that illicit trade warmly welcomed the new controls Wednesday. If strictly implemented, the new rules could have an important impact in preventing rebel groups from funding their wars through diamond sales, human rights officials at the meeting said.

''These proposals will go a long way to meeting many of the concerns about conflict diamonds,'' said a statement by eight civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, Global Witness and World Vision.

In a series of recent reports, such organizations have revealed how traffickers working the labyrinthine trails from African mine to international trading center sidestep existing controls.

Those controls only require certificates of origin to state from where a diamond was last exported, not where it was mined. The new system will require diamond shipments to carry documents tracking their origin all the way back to where they were pulled from the ground.

Rough diamonds will have to be shipped in sealed packages certified by authorities in the exporting nations. The packages will have to be verified by a new international diamond council, said Sean Cohen of the International Diamond Manufacturers Association.

Industry representatives will meet Thursday with interested governments in London to discuss the new rules. With government help, the industry hopes to have the global certification process in place before Christmas, Cohen said.

He said the new international diamond council -- made up of producers, manufacturers, traders, governments and representatives of international organizations -- will be a ''diamond United Nations'' with powers to withdraw exporting licenses from nations who try to cheat the system by passing off rebel diamonds as their own.

That measure is aimed at African nations accused of breaking U.N. embargoes on diamond sales by Angolan or Sierra Leonean rebels. Liberia, in particular, has been criticized for dealing in gems from the Revolu-tionary United Front rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. Burkina Faso and Togo have been blamed for helping Angola's UNITA guerrillas circumvent the embargo.

Industry representatives and rights campaigners were confident that effective certification systems could be set up, even in impoverished, war-battered African nations.

''This can be installed very soon'' in Sierra Leone, Meeus said.

Meeus returned from the West African nation Sunday after meeting with officials there to discuss a certification system. He said the Sierra Leonean government was planning to print fraud-proof certificates in London and would present its plans to the United Nations next week.

In the absence of a verification system, all Sierra Leonean diamonds have been effectively banned since July 5, when the U.N. imposed a boycott on rebel gems.

Delegates at the Antwerp meeting acknowledged the new rules would not stamp out smuggling completely. But they will make it harder for rebels to peddle their gems, denting guerrillas revenues, the delegates said.

The head of De Beers, the world's biggest diamond company, said he hoped the industry cleanup would lift the threat of a consumer backlash.

''The vast majority of diamonds come from nations that are entirely peaceful and stable,'' said Gary Ralfe, managing director of the South African conglomerate.

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