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Africa

Blood Diamonds: Still Bloody

A man and his boy sift through pebbles searching for diamonds on Nov. 18, 2009, in the village of Bobi, northwestern Ivory Coast, where diamond activity is the main activity despite a U.N. ban. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/ AFP-Getty Images)

An estimated 65 percent of the world's diamonds come from the rich earth of southern Africa. Diamonds are also sourced anywhere from Russia to South America. In Israel, the diamond industry accounted for more than 30 percent of the country's total manufacturing exports (nearly $20 billion) in 2008.

Australia, Canada, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania—these countries have been able to invest the revenue from diamonds into the development of infrastructure, schools and hospitals for the good of the communities where diamonds are found. Diamond-rich Botswana has used its mines, which are partially owned by the state, to fund infrastructure, education and health care, as well as set aside a rainy-day fund of nearly $7 billion. But Botswana has something essential that other African countries do not: a government known for being both functional and honest.

In other areas, organized crime, corrupt regimes and international terrorist organizations have their hands deep in the pockets of the diamond industry, and the proceeds help fund genocide, slavery, war and terrorism. The problem is the rebels and/or governments who exploit diamonds (along with other natural resources) to achieve their illicit goals.

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Blood diamonds, also known as "conflict diamonds," are stones that are usually produced in areas controlled by rebel forces that are opposed to internationally recognized governments. The rebels sell these diamonds, and the money is used to purchase arms and fund their military actions.

Blood diamonds are often produced through the forced labor of men, women and children under deplorable working conditions. They are also stolen during shipment or seized by attacking the mining operations of legitimate producers. These attacks can be on the scale of a large military operation.

The stones are then smuggled into the international diamond trade and sold as legitimate gems. These diamonds are often the source of enormous amounts of money for the rebels, and bribes, threats, torture and murder are common modes of operation.

The flow of conflict diamonds has originated mainly from Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Ivory Coast.

The Kimberley Process

Eight years ago, in the aftermath of horrific abuses committed by West African rebel groups enriched by diamond wealth, an international body backed by the United Nations (the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme) was founded to ensure that traders and consumers could identify blood diamonds and prevent their trade.

The Kimberley Process (KP) requires each nation to certify that diamond exports are produced through legitimate mining and sales activity. All rough diamonds exported from these nations are to be accompanied by certificates stating that the diamonds were produced, sold and exported through legitimate channels. The certification process accounts for all rough diamonds, through every step of their movement, from mine to retail sale.

Nations who agree to participate in the KP are not permitted to trade with nonmember nations. The KP is believed to have significantly reduced the number of conflict diamonds that are reaching international gem markets, although not without its problems.

Zimbabwe, unchecked

The KP review mission recently found that diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe are mined under conditions of serious human rights abuses, with endemic smuggling and rampant corruption, in breach of the standards set by the organization. But little can be done about it because the KP works by consensus. Because its members include Namibia, Russia and South Africa, which support President Robert Mugabe, the group decided in November 2009 not to suspend Zimbabwe or ban the sale of its stones.

The group's weak excuse was a technicality in the KP mandate that defines blood diamonds as those mined by abusive rebel groups, not abusive governments. Clearly, it should not matter who carries out the abuses. The Kimberley Process did urge Zimbabwe to remove its military from the diamond fields and make other crucial reforms, but the situation in the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe remains largely unchanged.

Despite Zimbabwean claims that the army was withdrawing, for the most part the diamond fields remain under firm military control, with smuggling, abuses and corruption unchecked. Blood diamonds from Marange continue to find their way into jewelry stores worldwide. The stones often get smuggled into world markets via unregistered traders in neighboring countries such as Mozambique or South Africa. These countries either do not or cannot certify the origin and flow of the stones, which then become intermingled with legitimate gems.

Few outsiders have been able to penetrate the closely guarded Marange diamond fields. Human Rights Watch traveled regularly to the area in 2009 and documented the killings of hundreds of people by the Zimbabwean military, torture and forced labor, including that of children.

Mugabe is now part of a government based on a power-sharing deal with the former opposition party, with which he refuses to share either actual power or diamond revenue. Mugabe's regime is accused of massacring informal diamond miners, yet KP governments have refused to speak out.

Global attention to these blood diamonds can be a critically important means of curtailing Mugabe's human rights violations and securing a genuinely inclusive government. The diamond fields could be worth billions of pounds and make a vital contribution to rebuilding a country brought to ruin by Mr. Mugabe's economic mismanagement.

A steady influx of unlawful diamonds, from Zimbabwe to Mozambique, is providing fresh wealth to border towns previously plagued by poverty and malnutrition. Traders use "mules," who often ingest the stones to smuggle them into Mozambique. In Mozambique they are bought up by dealers from Lebanon, Belgium, Iraq, Mauritania and the Balkans, many of them with the connivance of the army and police.

In early February, the London Telegraph reported a secret runway being built at Chiadzwa capable of accommodating long-range jets. The construction of the runway is well underway and includes a newly built control tower, according to aerial pictures that accompanied the article. Equally troubling was photographic evidence of a tented army camp in the diamond fields, in violation of the Kimberley Process and consistent with longstanding claims made by human rights activists.

While the diamond industry has convinced the public that the KP certification scheme is keeping conflict diamonds off the market, the KP continues to certify diamonds from Zimbabwe, even though diamond mining there is causing unspeakable human suffering. Diamonds that have funded murders, forced labor, rape and political oppression are currently on the market with "conflict free" certification.

Recent actions by the Zimbabwean military indicate that it is secretly trading rough diamonds for weapons, thereby helping to fortify and prolong Robert Mugabe's oppressive and anti-democratic regime. Mugabe's government has illegally seized mining operations, ignored national court rulings and stolen diamonds out of the country's central bank to line his party's pockets.

Zimbabwe's diamond production is currently valued at $33 million dollars annually, with over $150 million dollars smuggled out since 2003. The country is estimated to have over 16.5 million tons of diamond reserves available for mining.

After its last politically charged and disorganized meeting in November 2009, the KP failed to suspend Zimbabwe for its diamond mining abuses. Meanwhile Zimbabwe is threatening to voluntarily quit the certification scheme if standards are enforced. "We can sell our own diamonds elsewhere," Mugabe told reporters on February 17.

Although industry leaders including the World Diamond Council have called on jewelers to maintain "vigilance" to prevent the sale of diamonds from the Marange district, many jewelers continue to sell Zimbabwean diamonds as conflict-free while failing to demand an international system that can ensure that all diamonds are ethically mined.

Lawlessness in Africa

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC), formerly the Belgian Congo and then Zaire, is another country that is very hard to monitor. The DROC is the largest country in the African continent and endowed with abundant valuable natural resources, including diamonds.

In the DROC, a country that has seen its fair share of civil wars and where corruption and mismanagement are rife, it's hardly conceivable that diamond sales can be fully monitored, when lawlessness and a frontier mentality are prevalent in cities like Mbuji-Mayi. Miraculously, the DROC was elected vice-chair of the Kimberley Process for 2010.

Most of the DROC's diamonds are exported through a state-run company, but in a country that was overrun by one dictator after another for more than 40 years, experts say that getting diamonds out of the Congo illegally has been an-all-too-common occurrence. Rebel forces control some of the areas where diamonds are extracted and, consequently, have become players in the mining game, extracting the diamonds, selling them illegally and using the money to fund their insurgent activities.

Greater monitoring of Côte d'Ivoire, the only country "officially" still with conflict diamonds, was also raised at the November 2009 KP Plenary in Namibia. Recent satellite imagery and reports by the U.N. Group of Experts uncovered increasing diamond mining activity in northern Côte d'Ivoire, still controlled by the Forces Nouvelles, and the continuing smuggling of this production into the legitimate diamond trade.

Given these developments, the KP is in real danger of irrelevance, if not collapse. Some say it is failing in its core mission of keeping blood diamonds out of international markets.

One country turned around

One country where the KP has helped limit the trade in illegal diamonds is Sierra Leone. Activists estimate that during the civil war the Revolutionary United Front rebels raked in around $125 million a year from smuggled diamonds. Sierra Leone's civil war raged for several years until 2002, and the country became synonymous with blood diamonds, serving as the backdrop to the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "Blood Diamond."

Back then, legitimite exports of diamonds from Sierra Leone were worth a little more than $1 million a year. Although some smuggling still goes on, official exports are now worth well over $100 million a year, providing much-needed funds for the government.

But just one

Elsewhere things have not gone so well. Guinea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Lebanon are the worst examples.

Venezuela "voluntarily" withdrew from the KP for two years in 2008 after it was threatened with expulsion for noncompliance with basic requirements, including wholesale smuggling. In the meantime, there has been little evidence that Venezuela has made any serious effort to address concerns. Diamond mining and smuggling continue unabated, and the government persists in its antagonistic stance toward civil society groups that report it. With the two-year deadline coming up, the KP will be expected to require that Venezuela demonstrate that it has instituted the necessary reforms to become compliant. For years there have been no official diamond exports from Venezuela despite an active mining sector, meaning that all Venezuelan diamonds are smuggled illegally, and yet the country remains a KP member.

West Africa is a well known transit center for smuggled diamonds, especially for Lebanese traders, with many sales funding criminal and terrorist groups. European and American intelligence sources have long known that Hezbollah has raised significant amounts of money in West Africa through the largely Shiite Muslim Lebanese communities in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Togo. There are an estimated 120,000 Lebanese in West Africa, mostly involved in import-export businesses.

Illegally mined West African diamonds are still thought to be helping al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations finance their activities and for money-laundering purposes. Transcripts from court cases against al Qaeda members contain evidence that the network has people with expertise in the diamond business and who previously dabbled in the gemstone trade in Tanzania.

Diamonds from African countries have been funding guerrilla wars for decades. But they're not the only precious gems with blood on their hands. Emeralds and Burmese rubies, for example, are two prized resources that are fraught with conflict and not monitered or certified by the KP.

Burmese rubies are famous for their distinctive dark "pigeon's blood" color. Both the United States and the European Union ban Burmese gems, but outside groups estimate that the brutal Burmese junta still reaped almost $300 million from rubies in the 2006 fiscal year. The junta, which earns much of its hard currency from the sale of gems, holds direct stakes in many of the mines and conducts official auctions to augment the profits made from illegal smuggling. At the mines themselves, child labor and diseases such as HIV/AIDS are common.

Colombia is the world's leading exporter of emeralds, accounting for half of the $280 million-a-year global trade. Emerald mafias fought a bloody "green war" in the 1980s to keep drug cartels out of the business. Violence from the rural Boyacá area extended to Bogotá, killing more than 3,500 people. Victor Carranza, the country's shady emerald czar, is accused of funding paramilitary groups, and he served jail time between 1998 and 2002 for organizing death squads. As for the mines, they rely on the children and wives of men killed in the region's ongoing violence.

Consumer ignorance

Most consumers do not realize they may be purchasing blood diamonds—even in 2010.

A 2004 Amnesty International survey found that 83 percent of U.S. jewelers say their customers "rarely or never" inquire about the source of diamonds. A similar study in 2007 found that 56 percent of jewelers do not even have an auditing procedure in place to prevent the retail of conflict diamonds. Those who do, rely on the KP certification.

We should all send a strong message to the diamond industry, the smugglers and those running abusive mining operations: It is not acceptable to trade in stones mined by children whose labor was coerced, women who have been raped or men who have been tortured.

Retail customers buying a cut diamond (the United States accounts for about 50 percent of world diamond demand) should insist upon a sales receipt that documents that their diamond originated from a conflict-free source.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

 
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