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Blood On the Diamonds

6 November 2001

Few Americans would have imagined that they have something in common with the people of Sierra Leone, who for years have suffered torture, rape, mutilation and murder at the hands of an uncommonly brutal rebel force, the Revolutionary United Front.

But last week The Post revealed that the same rebel soldiers who turned West Africa into a slaughterhouse are mining Sierra Leonean diamonds and selling them to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The trade has garnered millions of dollars for al Qaeda operatives and provided a steady flow of weapons, food and aid to the Revolutionary United Front, whose sole claim to power is based on its military control of Sierra Leone's rich alluvial diamond fields. Now the news that "conflict diamonds" are fueling atrocities against Americans may at last prod the U.S. government into doing something about them.

Eighteen months ago the government of South Africa convened representatives of 38 diamond-producing and trading nations, human rights activists and diamond industry representatives, in Kimberley, South Africa, to develop a comprehensive trade system to eliminate conflict gems from the legitimate diamond trade. A dozen meetings later, the so-called Kimberley Process has nearly finalized a regimen that will include robust international monitoring, mandatory audited chains of custody, tough criminal penalties, tamperproof packaging and standardized and public record-keeping.

Unfortunately, the world's largest importer of diamond jewelry, the United States, has stalled, criticized and equivocated throughout negotiations, leaving to others the arduous task of negotiating the complicated system of controls. American diplomats infuriated their African and European counterparts at last week's diamond meeting in Luanda, Angola, by refusing at the eleventh hour to endorse or cooperate with Kimberley's proposed export and re-export documentation and record-keeping.

Such opting out may well doom the entire international effort.Because diamonds flow like water across borders and pass through many hands in the sorting, selling, cutting and jewelry-making operations, the Kimberley Process aims to track every export, import and re-export transaction. Diamonds are mined in warring African countries, but they are traded, transformed and imported all over the world.

The United States must do its part by checking the paperwork, chain of warranties, packaging and credentials of diamond importers; otherwise the $30 billion-plus American diamond jewelry market will be the destination of choice for bin Laden diamonds squeezed out of the legitimate trade. No one country can opt out of the international system and go it alone to stem the blood diamond trade. For example, Angolan insurgents exported more than $100 million of diamonds in the past year, despite U.N. sanctions on rebel diamonds. A damning new U.N. report indicated that 16 companies based in Belgium, Israel and South Africa were involved in the sanctions busting.

The futility of controlling the trade unilaterally should persuade the Bush administration to take another approach. A golden opportunity is at hand. The House and Senate are poised to take up and pass a diamond import bill as soon as the executive branch drops its objections. The Clean Dia mond Trade Act, a bipartisan initiative supported by the diamond industry and by human rights, humanitarian and religious groups, prohibits the import of diamonds from countries that have not met a Kimberley-style standard for excluding blood diamonds from their trade.The Bush administration is demanding discretion in applying the law and adamantly refuses to "name and shame" countries that continue to trade in blood diamonds if they happen to be friends in the war against terrorism.

Last week's explosive report on the role of diamond trafficking in nourishing the bin Laden network should extinguish any such scruples.Without prompt international action to protect a clean diamond trade, the diamond trade will continue to be tainted with African and American blood. If consumers act on their disgust by avoiding diamond purchases, it will be a body blow to poor countries such as Botswana, whose people and economy depend heavily on their clean and legitimate diamond industry.

The Bush administration has a unique opportunity and an obligation to lead the world in setting up rigorous import controls against the lifeblood of terrorists.

What is it waiting for?

Holly Burkhalter.
Published in the Washington Post.
2001 The Washington Post Company.

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