Diamonds: a chance to control the killing

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

This time last year, the State Department convened an international conference on the role played by diamonds in Africa's grisly civil wars. In Angola, Congo and Sierra Leone, the rebel bands that have killed and maimed civilians are driven or sustained by diamond revenues: They fight less for political reasons than to gain access to the gems that will make their commanders rich. One year since that conference, the movement to control "conflict diamonds" has progressed remarkably rapidly. And yet in the final days of Congress, the administration may miss a chance to press its advantage fully.

The chance presents itself in an amendment sponsored by Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, which would give the diamond industry one year to implement a scheme to track gems from their country of origin to the handful of centers that cut and finish them. After they are mined, the diamonds would be wrapped in tamper-proof, numbered packages and logged into a database; each time a package crossed a border, that would be logged too. The idea is that the cutting centers could then refuse to take diamonds from countries where they are known to be mined by murderous rebels. Jewelers could buy from responsible cutting centers with a clear conscience; and the whole industry would avoid a consumer boycott like the one that undermined the fur business.

This scheme would not be foolproof. Some conflict diamonds might be smuggled into nearby countries and packaged there. But the monitoring regime would at least limit that problem, because it would be accompanied by rules capping each country's exports at the estimated level of its mining capacity. Recently Liberia has been exporting many times more diamonds than it produces, because its government is close to the limb-chopping rebels who control Sierra Leone's diamond fields. A certification scheme would stop such overt financing of, and profiting from, butchery.

Almost nobody opposes monitoring. The diamond industry itself designed the scheme in conjunction with nongovernmental critics; most diamond-producing governments favor it as well. Rep. Hall wants to build on that consensus by allowing one year to implement the monitoring scheme, then imposing sanctions on countries that fail to comply. The World Diamond Council, which speaks for the industry, has endorsed the idea of a deadline. But the administration is wary, pleading that congressional deadlines trample on its prerogatives, and that a hard deadline is unwise. The danger is that, without a deadline, the momentum of reform may dissipate. The administration should embrace this chance to control the killing gems.

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