Meeting participants try to finalize a diamond certification system

Human rights groups and gem merchants begin a two-day meeting in Ottawa, Canada, in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough in negotiations to establish a system to halt the trade in illicit diamonds.

Representatives from the 35 major diamond-producing and importing countries meet in today and tomorrow to try to conclude a pact on policing the trade so that gems from war zones are kept out of the international market, The Toronto Globe and Mail reports.

Diamond smuggling and wars to control diamond fields have cost the lives of about 500,000 people in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries in the past decade, according to rights groups.

“Diamonds are a deadly human-rights issue because their trade can and does finance harrowing civil wars, an evil trade that has equipped human-rights criminals with the means to kill, rape and maim,” Alex Neve, the secretary-general of the Canadian section of Amnesty International, reportedly said Monday. “It is a sinister trade that has funded armed groups that have forced children to brutalize other children.”

In response to pressure from other United Nations countries, the producing and importing countries have held more than a dozen meetings in the past two years to hammer out an agreement. The most recent meeting, in Botswana last November, approved a tentative plan.

But the rights groups said it is seriously flawed, the newspaper reported. They want an international monitoring organization created to make sure so-called blood diamonds are not being laundered through third countries before arriving at major markets in Tel Aviv, Antwerp and New York.

The groups want to bring the monitoring system under the aegis of the World Trade Organization, so that no one can claim that sanctions imposed on countries dealing in dirty diamonds are in effect protectionist measures that would be in violation of free-trade principles.

“We would like to see the Ottawa session try to make as much progress as possible, if not conclude an agreement,” Matthew Runci, executive director of the World Diamond Council and Jewelers of America president and CEO, reportedly said.

The industry fears a consumer backlash and boycott could drive down diamond prices.

The United States is the world’s largest importer of diamonds. Many industry observers believe that any international system to curb the dirty-diamond trade would fail without a U.S. law.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill last year banning the importation of diamonds from conflict zones. The measure stalled in the Senate after the Bush administration raised technical concerns. The U.S. administration wants to see an international agreement in place before passing domestic legislation, Runci told the newspaper.