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Columns

Deadly Diamonds

The Worldfront

By Jonathan P. Abel

Crushing the trade in “conflict diamonds” looks about as easy as winning the War on Drugs, but that hasn’t stopped the United States and 43 other nations from forging ahead with their plans. Conflict diamonds are those precious but sinister stones that no one with a good conscience can buy. Their procurement is brutal; their sale finances war. And last week, a group of nations agreed to implement the Kimberly Process, a system that will put an end to the trade of conflict diamonds, at least in theory.

Trading conflict diamonds is already illegal; the Kimberly Process is just an attempt to enforce the law. Starting next year, all rough, unpolished diamonds must have certificates to prove that they do not come from “conflict” mines. Amnesty International, OXFAM, Global Witness and other human rights groups have spent years railing against conflict diamonds because the diamonds are a double dose of misery. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) captures mines and then forces locals to forage through the mud looking for diamonds. After extracting days of slave labor from these hapless workers, the RUF thanks the workers by hacking off their arms with machetes.

But as cruel as this behavior is, there is an even uglier side to this trade. The proceeds from the sale of conflict diamonds are used to fund prolonged, internecine wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries, hence the name “conflict diamonds.” The Washington Post reports that al Qaeda launders millions of dollars through the diamond trade. Even the most jaded observer will have to admit that the flow of conflict diamonds must be stopped. Unfortunately, the Kimberly Process won’t exert enough pressure to stop their flow, and worse still, there are a lot of bad characters who will avoid the Kimberly Process’s squeeze.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country the size of Western Europe, is a leader in the production of conflict, diamonds, and conflict diamonds. Some observers have compared it to the Wild West. This land is saturated with natural resources, including diamonds, and the mines win DRC its share of shady characters. Rebel soldiers and al Qaeda operatives have been spotted around the mines, as well as armies from six African nations, helpfully occupying resource-rich territory. Planes take off from mines regularly on flights paths that are not even covered by radar. Needless to say, no one checks the passengers’ bags for mineral booty.

In these remote parts of Africa, it’s impossible to prevent rebels from laying their hands on rough diamonds. Ideally, however, these diamonds would be prevented from being sold on the open market because they lack the necessary certification. But the implementation of the Kimberly Process is actually left up to the customs officials of each nation, and to private diamond cutters. Unscrupulous diamond cutters will easily be able to circumvent the certification system by refining the rough diamonds, for polished diamonds do no require certificates. Why? Because there are centuries’ worth of polished diamonds in circulation without certificates, so these cut conflict diamonds would blend right in without documentation. This all means that despite the fancy new certificate system, the ban still depends on the cooperation of private diamond dealers—the very people who have been running the conflict diamond trade for years.

However, even if the logistics of the process somehow work out, the ban is flawed in its conception because of the way it defines “conflict diamonds.” The Kimberly Process applies only to rebel-controlled mines, and not to those of “recognized” governments. Diamonds mined under coercive conditions and sold to finance war are not considered “conflict diamonds” as long as the regime in charge is “recognized.” This inconsistency undercuts the moral stance of the Kimberly Process. Frequently the government is just as bad as the rebels, if not worse. I wouldn’t want to put a lot of stake in the distinction between the two sides. Just look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the current government was a start-up rebel group not five years ago, fighting the recognized but despicable government of Mobutu Sese Seko. Under the definition of the Kimberly Process, Mobutu’s diamonds are fair game, but the rebel diamonds would have been illegal. It’s unfortunate that the Kimberly Process taints its moral position with a trivial, political distinction.

But the most disappointing part of our stance on conflict diamonds is that it exposes how unprincipled our pursuit of some other products is. With our massive consumption of oil we have paid for and will continue to pay for enormous Middle Eastern arsenals. Coffee, sugarcane and cacao are all procured under brutal—even inhumane—conditions rivaling those of any diamond mine, but they are too essential to our daily lives to consider a ban. Instead, we have banned conflict diamonds, which make up a mere 3 percent share of the world diamond market. Basically, we’re willing to take a moral stance as long as it is convenient. So feel proud of the Kimberly Process if you want, just don’t feel too proud.

Jonathan P. Abel ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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