House Passes Conflict Diamonds Bill

The House of Representatives recently passed a modified version of the Clean Diamonds Act, and backers hope Senate approval is next.

The bill, aimed at preventing conflict diamonds from entering the United States, passed as a freestanding measure 408 to 6.

At press time, backers were uncertain whether the Senate could tackle the legislation before the clock ran out on its 2001 session. Matthew A. Runci, president of Jewelers of America and head of the World Diamond Council’s legislative committee, said Senate supporters were exploring some options, including subjecting it to unanimous consent or tacking it onto an existing measure. The Senate version is sponsored by Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Dewine (R-Ohio), and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.)

The bill’s passage was initially uncertain because the Bush administration objected to some provisions. But just prior to the House vote, supporters, including the nongovernmental organizations allied with Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), the congressman who has taken the lead on the conflict diamond issue, agreed on a compromise version that had the administration’s approval. That compromise cleared the way for its eventual passage.

Both Hall and the industry noted that the new version was watered down from the original compromise the two sides agreed to last August. Ironically, it resembles the bill the industry first introduced last January, before striking its deal with Hall.

“The compromise is not perfect,” Hall told reporters at a press conference before House passage. “In my judgment, this bill gets us 85 percent of the way.”

The original compromise bill shut off diamond imports from countries that do not sign on to the international system of rough controls. This included both polished diamonds and diamond jewelry.

The new bill focuses primarily on rough diamonds—which are not imported into the United States in large numbers. Under the new approach, the President has the authority to impose sanctions on non-complying countries if he deems that it’s in our national security interest. If a country does not implement a system of controls but is not sanctioned, the President must report to Congress every six months, explaining steps being taken to guard against importing conflict diamonds from that country.

The sole provision for polished stones is one that gives the President the authority to block shipments of jewelry and polished gems if he has credible evidence that they were made with conflict diamonds.

The main difference between the two approaches is that the new bill gives the President most of the authority, while the original bill gave it to Congress. “This new bill has teeth, but smaller teeth in my view,” Runci says. “But there’s enough here to form the basis for a system of controls. It’s a good start.”

Still, while he expects Hall and the NGOs to eventually “move on” to other issues, he says the industry still has a lot of work to do on this issue, and he warns that the industry may face similar problems in the future.

“As an industry, we can expect to continue to be scrutinized on social, ethical, and environmental issues by civil society and the press,” he says. “We need to face up to it, not be defensive about these things, and be proactive. There’s no reason why we cant be effective in dealing with these issues.”