Conflict diamonds slow to a trickle

Hollywood’s take on conflict diamonds has brought attention back in a big way to how gems associated with wealth and glamour have too often meant war and suffering in Africa.

The film Blood Diamond, which opened on Friday in United States theatres,

is set in late 1990s Sierra Leone, when the West African country was in the throes of a civil war in which untraceable diamonds allegedly funded fighters who hacked off people’s hands with machetes and burned entire villages.

Since then, the situation has improved dramatically. But while diamonds may no longer be fuelling war, they are a long way from helping pull people out of poverty on a continent that produces about 65% of the world’s diamonds, valued at about $8,4-billion a year, according to the World Diamond Council.

Wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have given way to peace deals—and even to democratic elections. The DRC inaugurated its first freely elected president in more than four decades on Wednesday.

And since 2003, African diamonds have been labelled and tracked, given “birth certificates” in a process that tracks gems from extraction to sale to ensure gems in Western jewelry stores don’t fund rebels.

Yet in practice, rights groups say the oversight organisation called the Kimberley Process has had a number of problems that could keep it from being effective if conflict were to break out again in major diamond producers.

And residents in some of the diamond-producing countries recovering from years of war say they still aren’t seeing much benefit from the gems leaving their shores for markets in North America or Europe.

Sierra Leone’s eastern diamond region still has poor roads and little electricity or running water.

Partnership Africa Canada, a Canadian pressure group, says most miners in Sierra Leone are not paid a salary, but are provided with food and mining tools by the holder of a mining licence, then forced to sell their finds back to the licence holder at below-market prices.

In major diamond producer Botswana, the Basarwa, popularly known as Bushmen, have accused the government of trying to force them from their ancestral homelands to make way for mining diamonds and other minerals.
The government has denied the charges. A judge was to rule on a case filed by the Basarwa later this month.

Such issues are outside the purview of the Kimberley Process, a voluntary 71-nation group created out of the uproar about diamond-funded wars in Sierra Leone and Angola.

The group, whose members agree only to buy or sell certified diamonds, has helped conflict diamonds drop to less than 1% of the world’s diamonds, from about 4% previously.

“We are striving to make it zero,” said Eli Izhakoff, chairperson of the industry World Diamond Council. “We want to tighten up more of the controls.”

Global Witness, one of the groups that started the campaign against conflict diamonds back in 1998, said Kimberley is weak and too quick to trust the word of member governments.

“At this point, should armed conflict spark up again in some of the countries that were most affected ... we’re not confident that the Kimberley Process is yet strong enough to stem the flow of conflict diamonds,” said Annie Dunnebacke, a Global Witness campaigner.

Only a few countries are still considered sources of conflict diamonds. Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia are banned from exporting diamonds by UN resolutions. Liberia—which elected Africa’s first female president nearly a year ago—is hoping to have the sanctions lifted soon. Côte d’Ivoire is still struggling to hold elections and UN sanctions aim to prevent rebels in the north of the war-divided nation from profiting from the stones.

When Côte d’Ivoire diamonds were found to be leaking over the border into Ghana and sold by Ghanaians with Kimberley certificates earlier this year, the information came not from one of the Kimberley Process’s periodic reviews, but from reports by activists and a UN review commission.

A September report by the US General Accounting Office found that the US systems for controlling diamond imports and exports were “vulnerable to illicit trade”.

The report said while diamonds arrived at ports with Kimberley Process certificates, officials did not periodically inspect the shipments to see that the contents matched the paperwork.

Over the years, rights groups say the Kimberley Process has seldom been the initiator of disciplinary action. But Izhakoff said credit should be given for the action that has been taken.

Even its critics acknowledge that the problems are minor in a generally successful programme that has started to bring order to a previously unregulated industry. The group kicked out DRC in 2004 because the small Central African country couldn’t account for exporting significantly more diamonds than it mined.

And at a yearly meeting last month, the Kimberley Process told Ghana it had three months to clean up its diamond industry.

Partnership Africa Canada, which had been very critical of the Kimberley Process, said in a report after the November meeting that the group was taking the right steps toward reform and commended the World Diamond Council’s request for government oversight of the industry as “a first in the annals of government-industry regulatory discourse”.With greater regulation, legal diamond exports have risen in most of the affected countries, bringing greater revenue to governments through taxation and partnerships.

Yet, there are countries that belong to the Kimberley Process whose governments are still aspiring to control the vast industry—some with large untapped resources.

In addition, only a small proportion of the diamonds mined in Africa are processed on the continent, meaning the skilled jobs and much of the earnings are elsewhere.

“The hottest areas [for early stage mines] are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola,” said Matt O’Keefe, a diamond analyst at Toronto-based Westwind Partners. “Those two places are known to have some great resource potential, but for a long time now the countries have been too unstable for companies to go into.”

Angola has cracked down on illegal diamond mining and smuggling but much of the industry is still outside of government control, according to the US State Department. And local activists have charged that small traditional miners are being pushed out in favour of corporations.

In the DRC, which produces about 8% of the world’s diamonds, the industry has long operated with few government controls. Even as an elected government takes power, sporadic fighting has continued in the country—often with government

forces that are nominally part of the same army battling on behalf of warlords to whom they remain loyal. Rights groups have accused soldiers of intimidating diamond miners, who have sometimes asked rebels for protection. The government has said it does not have confirmed accounts of such activity and has mounted investigations into various allegations of army misconduct. - Sapa-AP

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