‘Conflict’ 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 appeared 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. “Its not on their priority list.”

Even so, the prospect of dueling bills again puts the industry at odds with Hall and his allies at the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are waging a campaign to drum up support for the Hall bill (see “An Open Letter to Nongovernmental Organizations,” p. 144). 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 according to Runci, the industry does not support it on the following grounds:

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 stones.

Second, the bill requires diamond jewelry producers as well as cutting centers to establish rough controls—which means that jewelry manufacturers in countries never before implicated in the “conflict” trade, like Italy, must implement the certification rules. Instead, the industry favors language that lets the U.S. president single out producers suspected of laundering conflict stones.

Both bills allow waivers, after six months, to countries that are making a good-faith effort to implement the rules, but there are disagreements over whether the president should allow additional waivers after a year. The industry also bridles at comments in the bill’s preamble, which it feels scapegoats the jewelry industry for Africa’s problems.

The industry supports a bill that will be introduced shortly by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), 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 he notes that 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 bills 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 so alike in important respects—and the factions could boost their firepower by working together.

“We would rather have one bill,” says WDC chairman Eli Izhakoff. “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 take 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 that engaging outside counsel was a mistake; Izhakoff told The Nation magazine he “would rather not have gone” to Akin-Gump.

Rory Anderson of the 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 partner 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” campaigns.

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 [who] 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 dollar they earn.” De Beers has been certifying its diamonds as “conflict-free” since February 2000.