An Open Letter to Nongovernmental Organizations

Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know many people in your organizations. I believe you sincerely care about the people in Africa and ending the trade in conflict diamonds, which is why I’m sending this open letter. After hearing from all sides in the debate over conflict diamonds legislation, I think we can all agree on the following:

  • Congress doesn’t care about conflict diamonds.

  • The apparent winding down of the war in Sierra Leone makes it even less likely that a conflict diamond bill will pass.

No matter what happens with the current “diamond wars,” rough controls are still important to maintain stability in the region, prevent the use of diamonds in other conflicts, and forestall future wars over gems. With frequent changes in African governments, this is vital.

  • The diamond industry and Congressman Tony Hall’s (D-Ohio) office are offering two separate bills, but the differences between the two pieces of legislation are minor.

  • Legislation would have a far greater chance of passing if the two groups joined together to push it.

  • Both sides blame each other for the split.

After witnessing all the finger-pointing, I am tired. I’ve read enough articles on the situation in Sierra Leone, seen enough gruesome images, heard enough horrifying testimony to know what’s at stake. I don’t know who’s to blame for the split, and I don’t care. Surely, reasonable people can work together on this, especially when they agree on 99% of the end goals. And yet, for now, it seems they can’t focus on where there is agreement and get something passed.

Conflict diamond legislation is important for the future of both the industry and Africa. All sides hope one bill will eventually emerge. But time is slipping away. As in Africa, the warring factions need to stop fighting and work together. Now.

The current NGO strategy is to pressure jewelers to support Hall’s efforts. At a recent rally in Boston, demonstrators crowed that they got a prominent Boston jeweler to back the bill. Nice work, guys. One jeweler down, 27,999 to go.

With all due respect, this plan is dumb. Why go jeweler by jeweler, when the World Diamond Council and Jewelers of America—which represent the bulk of the American jewelry industry—want a compromise but cannot support Hall’s bill? In fact, all sides—with the exception of some in Hall’s office—say they want to work together.

I and my colleagues at JCK believe that ending the scourge of conflict diamonds is in the industry’s moral and self-interest. We strongly back the proposed certification system and efforts to flush “blood stones” from the trade. We are appalled by the suffering in Africa and are sickened by any role diamonds may have played in it. The diamond industry—which includes many Holocaust survivors and children of survivors—is equally horrified and wants to end the atrocities as soon as possible, and we can understand why people say buying conflict diamonds is akin to doing business with the Nazis.

From the beginning, no one has wanted a fight with you or Congressman Hall. On the contrary, the industry has worked with all parties. But the trade should not support flawed or unworkable legislation, no matter how much it is threatened. The Hall bill is a generally sound approach, although there are problems with specifics. We feel the industry should keep an open mind toward what comes out of Hall’s camp. “Pride of authorship” should be second to getting something effective done now. It needn’t be perfect; over time, anything can be improved.

The industry should work with and stay in regular contact with the NGO community. The differences between the two sides can be ironed out in the course of an afternoon—perhaps even over lunch. Hall’s bill seeks controls for diamond jewelry manufacturers. The industry wants the U.S. president to have discretion on this point. A final bill might require controls only on diamond jewelry manufacturers that import or process rough. In any case, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Jewelry manufacturing wasn’t even mentioned in Hall’s past bills.

As for Hall, after observing him for a year, he’s still a mystery. It’s hard to imagine the things he witnessed on his visits to the Sierra Leone amputee camp, but they have obviously imbued in him a sincere commitment to eliminate conflict diamonds. But it’s not clear whether he has the temperament to find a solution to which all sides can agree. Hot-headed rhetoric may be an everyday part of his world, but his seemingly bottomless well of venom towards the jewelry industry is puzzling. His harsher statements say more about him than they say about the trade.

Right now, he’s reaping rewards from the stalemate. He bashes the industry and appears to be the good guy. The rallies and Web sites and magazine articles and TV shows mention his name. And yet, I don’t think his current position is particularly heroic. There’s no reason for him to budge on his bill … and there needs to be.

You say that the industry is your “partner.” I agree. But partnership works both ways. While the tone at your rallies has softened, the comments from Hall and cohort Frank Wolf (R-Va.) keep getting wilder and nastier. How can the industry consider you a “partner” when your real partner keeps kicking it in the face?

So here’s my advice: Pestering jewelers about this won’t accomplish much. The real action is in Washington, D.C. Keep the heat on the World Diamond Council, but lean on Hall as well. Let him know that acid-laced rhetoric hurts the prospect for a compromise as well as the millions of Africans who depend on diamond revenue. Take both sides to task—because both sides are at fault. Right now, you are supporting the current stalemate. And that doesn’t do much good for the people in Africa.

This may mean declaring your independence from Hall. You are, by your own description, “nongovernmental organizations,” meaning there is a line between you and politicians. This isn’t about who was your friend in the past, but rather who can accomplish something in the future. Let Hall know that if he wishes to have your support, he must sit down with the industry and make a deal.

And just as we urge the industry to keep an open mind toward proposals from your side, we also urge you to keep an open mind toward the industry’s ideas. To date, all the rallies and Web sites and organizing has led only to an impasse, not to the bill that’s needed. It’s clear that the confrontational approach has run its course. The time for argument is over, and the hard work of getting something meaningful enacted has begun.

For this horrifying situation to be resolved, both sides need to join hands and move forward. Sadly, ego, self-interest, and past grievances have driven the parties apart. You can bring them together—by applying pressure to all sides. So go to it. A lot of people—in this industry and beyond—are counting on you.