An Effective Plan to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds

As the United Nations General Assembly debated a resolution concerning the tragic role of “conflict diamonds” in fueling turmoil in some parts of Africa, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke observed that the problem involved not just one region. Rather, he said, it is a global challenge demanding a global solution.

Just so. The fact that innocent civilians have been victimized in Sierra Leone, for instance, as outlaws profit from diamonds smuggled out of territory they control has received considerable attention. The encouraging news that a broad coalition is making rapid progress towards a global system to end this appalling practice is often overlooked.

On December 1, when Ambassador Holbrooke spoke, the General Assembly gave its unanimous blessing to a comprehensive, pragmatic plan that will lead to the necessary global solution. Adoption of the resolution introduced by South Africa – and co-sponsored by nine nations involved in different aspects of the diamond trade – was a genuine milestone in the campaign against conflict diamonds.

It demonstrated not merely a global commitment to cleanse the world’s gem inventory of the small percentage of polluted stones. The U.N. resolution also underscored the high degree of cooperation that has been achieved between the governments involved and all segments of the diamond industry. Finally, the methods sanctioned by the U.N. action showed appropriate concern for the interests of countries such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

These three nations export most of the precious stones mined in Africa, and their produce is entirely legitimate. These societies are struggling to achieve decent living standards. It would be a terrible irony if the world community curbed the trade in conflict diamonds in ways that punished peaceful African societies, thereby increasing the risk of new instability.

Since last spring, leaders of the industry in which I have made my career and governmental representatives have worked on four continents to create the appropriate control system. Part of the challenge, in technical terms, are facts that often escape notice when simplistic remedies are advanced. One of them is that there is no scientific means to identify the original source of a diamond once it is cut and polished. Rough diamonds, particularly in small quantities, are difficult to identify as to source. And, obviously, it is impossible to judge when a stone was extracted, so that one could say that extraction and export occurred during war or peace.

These inconvenient realities mean that it is impossible for a consuming country such as the United States simply to ban conflict diamonds. Contraband will never come to the border wearing a name tag. It is also impossible to identify, in a credible way, the original source of every diamond. An effective solution, therefore, can be found only in a system that prevents the insinuation of illicit rough stones into the early phase of the supply chain.

That is exactly what we – the interested governments, the U.N. and the diamond industry – are doing. We have crafted a system employing tamper-proof containers, counterfeit-proof documentation and electronic record keeping to track shipments of stones from the time they are extracted through the processing phase. This system is now being tested on a small scale, using exports from government-controlled parts of Sierra Leone to processing centers in Antwerp, Belgium.

So the case of conflict diamonds is closed? Not quite yet. The U.N. resolution wisely noted “the need for diamond exporting, processing and importing States to act in concert.” That means that all countries exporting and importing diamonds need to adopt common nitty-gritty practices concerning documentation, customs procedures and the like. That is why the industry-created organization charged with implementing the system, the World Diamond Council, has commissioned the drafting of model legislation to govern these matters. It will include criminal sanctions for corrupt middle men who abet outlaws.

The model legislation will be finished around the first of the year. Later in January, a working group will meet in Namibia to address technical issues. Then it will be up to individual nations to fulfill the mandate laid down with great clarity by the United Nations.

Eli Izhakoff, is chairman of the World Diamond Council, which includes representatives of all segments of the industry, in the U.S. and abroad, as well as officials of some interested governments.