Lawmakers, White House agree on `conflict diamonds’ bill

House lawmakers and the Bush administration have agreed on a bill to crack down on “conflict diamonds,” jewels sold to fund civil wars in Africa, the Associated Press reported.

The deal on the Clean Diamonds Act was reached late Monday, said Rep. Tony who sponsored the measure, the AP reported. The House was expected to vote Tuesday night but postponed consideration of the measure until Wednesday.

The world diamond trade, worth some $6 billion a year, has been tarnished by revelations that rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola have bought weapons through diamond sales and gone on to commit atrocities in their fights against elected governments.

The United Nations has set up a panel to study the issue. One of its members, Harjit Singh Sandhu of India, said earlier this month that there also is evidence that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network may have sold conflict diamonds to generate money.

Tony Hall, D-Ohio, has been leading the effort in Congress to stop the flow of such diamonds. His legislation would give the president authority to impose sanctions on countries that do not adopt a process to track diamonds so purchasers know they come from a legitimate source.

Hall and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., had pushed for automatic sanctions, but the Bush administration was reluctant, concerned that such a move could affect countries working with the United States on its anti-terrorism campaign, the AP reported.

“I wasn’t crazy about that, but I understand their way of thinking,” Hall told the AP whose similar bills died in Congress the past two years.

Diamond industry officials estimate that conflict diamonds account for about 4% of the world diamond trade; human rights organizations say the number is closer to 15% and have been urging action from the United States, which purchases about two-thirds of all diamonds.

“We believe the bill can be stronger, but we also understand that given the realities of the administration and the House stance, this is probably as good as we’re going to get,” Adotei Akwei, Africa Advocacy Director for Amnesty International, told the AP.

The bill focuses primarily on rough diamonds, which look like pebbles. A tracking system for polished diamonds and jewelry would not be required, but the president would be given the authority to seize such shipments if there is evidence indicating they may be conflict diamonds.

The bill would go into affect immediately and include $5 million both this year and next year to assist poor countries in setting up a certification system.

The United Nations is expected to wrap up this week the last of a yearlong series of meetings on developing an international system for tracking diamonds. About 40 countries have joined in the discussions.

Matthew Runci, president and CEO of Jewelers of America and executive director of the World Diamond Council, said passage of Hall’s bill would add pressure to the international community to agree on a tracking system.

A companion measure is pending in the Senate.