Conflict diamonds battle brews in Congress

The battle over ‘conflict diamonds’ has moved to Congress.

The industry and Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) are backing rival ‘conflict’ bills – although the chance of either passing appears bleak at press time.

”All the indications we are getting is that the House Ways and Means Committee does not seem interested in any conflict diamond legislation,” says Matt Runci, legislative director of the World Diamond Council. ”It’s not on their priority list.”

Even so, the prospect of dueling bills again puts the industry at odds with Hall and his allies at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — who are waging a campaign to drum up support for the Hall bill (See related story.)

Hall’s ”Clean Diamond Act” was introduced in March and has been endorsed by 105 House members. Like the industry’s proposal, it allows diamond imports only from countries that have implemented proper rough controls. But the industry does not support it on three grounds, Runci says.

First, it calls for a presidential advisory committee to develop a label that would certify incoming stones as ‘clean.’ But Runci says that’s unnecessary, since the rough diamond certification system will ensure all diamonds are non-conflict.

Secondly, the bill requires diamond jewelry producers as well as cutting centers establish rough controls – which means that jewelry manufacturers never before implicated in the ‘conflict’ trade, like Italy, must implement the certification rules. The industry favors language that lets the President single out producers suspected of laundering ‘conflict’ stones.

There are also disagreements over whether, after a year, the President should allow waivers to countries that are making a good faith effort to enact the rules. (Both bills allow waivers after six months.) The industry even blanches at comments in the bill’s preamble, which it feels scapegoats it for Africa’s problems.

The industry supports a bill that will be introduced shortly by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH.), which contains many of the same provisions as Hall’s but is ‘industry-friendlier.’

Runci says the WDC-favored bill will be more effective than Hall’s in wiping out ‘conflict’ stones – and notes it incorporates NGO objections to past drafts. ‘We think the NGOs will be pleasantly surprised by the Senate bill,’ he says.

Although the industry does not back the Hall bill, the Gregg legislation may not be introduced in the House. The WDC’s hope is that the differences between the two will be ironed out in a House-Senate conference.

Even some at the WDC are puzzled why the two sides are working separately when the bills are alike in important respects – and the factions could boost their firepower by working together.

”We would rather have one bill,” says Eli Izhakoff, WDC chairman. ”It’s too confusing otherwise.”

Naturally, each side says the other is at fault. ”When we first drew up our legislation, we presented it to Mr. Hall and the NGOs,” Runci says. ”We are more than willing to agree to changes to our bill. Hall’s response is that he’d much rather go ahead with his own bill.”

”It’s important for the industry to understand that we did not choose to go an independent path,” Runci says. ‘Mr. Hall chose to go an independent path. The industry cannot and should not support the Hall bill as it currently stands, though we remain open to reconciling differences.’ (Hall’s spokeswoman was out of the office at press time.)

From the Hall-NGO perspective, it was the industry that first struck out on its own by snubbing Hall’s past efforts and enlisting law firm Akin-Gump to draft legislation instead of angling for changes in Hall’s. Even some at the WDC now feel engaging outside counsel was a mistake; Izhakoff told The Nation magazine he ‘would rather not have gone’ to Akin-Gump.

Rory Anderson of Christian NGO World Vision, one of the leaders of the Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds, agrees that working separately is ”counter-productive.” But she says the industry has yet to provide, in writing, its objections to Hall’s bill. (Ironically, a few months back, Runci had the same complaint about the NGOs regarding the WDC draft legislation.)

Like the WDC, Anderson hopes that one bill will emerge from the wrangling and both camps will unite to pass it. ”The industry is our partners in this, and we want to be working with them,” Anderson says. Runci hopes that when a consensus compromise is reached, the NGOs will lower the volume on their ‘consumer education’ campaign.

For now, while the NGOs have cooled some of their statements, the rhetoric from congressional critics has gotten hotter. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) recently came close to equating the diamond industry with the brutal Sierra Leone rebels who practice terrorism and torture.

”[Lawyers who] lobby for the diamond industry against [Hall’s bill], are, in essence, validating the cutting off of the arm of [a] young child,” Wolf said in a speech on the House floor. ”If you are a lawyer downtown and the diamond industry comes to you and asks you to represent them to oppose [Hall’s bill], think about it. Because, in essence, you are representing the people, the people that have been responsible for this.”

Rep. Hall told The Nation the industry was ‘completely untrustworthy.” In a letter to 60 Minutes commending the show on its recent ”diamond” story, he said that wars in Africa ”provide De Beers and others with more than 25 cents of every dollars they earn.” De Beers has been certifying its diamonds as ”conflict-free” since February 2000.

FOURTH ”CONFLICT DIAMONDS” DEMONSTRATION HELD IN BOSTON

A fourth ”conflict diamond” rally was recently held in Boston – part of a campaign to pressure jewelers to support Rep. Tony Hall’s ‘Clean Diamond Act.’

The Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds, a group of 70 NGOs which organized the rally, is introducing a sticker for jewelers who support Hall’s bill. It will urge members to shop at only ”Jewelers for Clean Diamonds” who display the sticker. The jewelers’ names will be listed on the Committee’s web site, www.endconflictdiamonds.org.

In an email, Jewelers of America urged jewelers not to support the bill, which it is not backing (see above story.)

”You may . be asked to display a sticker or decal in your store or to list your store on a human rights group’s web site,” the e-mail said. ”We ask that you not take part in such activities at this time. While Congressman Hall and our industry agree that conflict diamonds must be eliminated and that passage of legislation is critical to that goal, we disagree on some important provisions of that legislation.”

Local jeweler Shreve, Crump and Low issued a press release timed for the rally that said it ”strongly supports the Clean Diamonds Act,” following a phone call from rally organizers. At the rally, speakers hailed the store for its apparent endorsement.

But Shreve president Richard Wycherley told JCK that he supported the demonstrators’ goal, not the specific bill.

”My comment to them is: I think Tony Hall’s bill has some virtue but it’s flawed in some major respects,” he said. ”We support the concept, but we don’t think their bill is the answer. The bill by Judd Gregg is more likely to be useful.” He said the organizers first asked him to sign a document, but he didn’t think that was appropriate. ”Certainly, there is no question of us putting a sticker in the window, or anything like that,” he said.

The rally included the main participants in the Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds — World Vision, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International USA. – as well as Oxfam America. It drew about 60 attendees – mostly students from area schools and universities. Local media was absent – with the exception of reporters from Dateline NBC and National Geographic, who were already working on the story.

At this rally, demonstrators handed out T-shirts that read ”Dying for a diamond?” and chanted, ”Hey Congress, don’t sit back, pass the Clean Diamonds Act,” ”Tiffany, Tiffany, the world is watching you,” ”No more dying for diamonds,” ”Hey, hey, ho, ho, conflict diamonds have got to go,” ”Hey what! Hey you! Your diamonds are bloody, too,” and ”No justice, no peace.” The tone of the comments was slightly less confrontational than at past demonstrations.

”We are not targeting the diamond industry,” said Josh Rubenstein of Amnesty International. ”We want to work with the diamond industry.”

But speakers didn’t shirk from describing African atrocities – which they contend wouldn’t have happened without diamonds. Hare Lyons read a particularly harrowing account of a young girl’s account of capture by the R.U.F., the Sierra Leone rebel force.

”Children are dying for diamonds,” said Rory Andersen of World Vision. ”April’s birthstone must not be a death stone.”

”The Clean Diamonds Act is a gift to the jewelers of America,” she continued. ”It gives customers assurance their diamonds are not bathed in blood but are instead giving a better future to the children of Africa.”

Speakers urged demonstrators to ask jewelers where their diamonds are from.

The rally was timed to the latest meeting of the ”Kimberley Process,” the ongoing collaboration between industry, NGOs and governments to install the certification system. Organizers hoped the rally would increase pressure on governments that were wary of rough controls.

A flier said the demonstration was held in Copley Square because it’s adjacent to a mall with a Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s has drawn fire from NGOs because of its role in the World Diamond Council. When JCK stopped into the adjacent Tiffany’s following the demonstration, store employees said they had heard no feedback from the rally, although demonstrators met with store management earlier in the day.