The World Diamond Congress had an upbeat closing, but it began on an odd, sour note. Rep. Tony Hall, the Ohio congressman whose CARAT Act would require every diamond in the United States to be sold with a “certificate of origin,” was the congress’s keynote speaker. He was the first U.S. congressman in history to either visit or address the World Diamond Congress, and while few expected his speech to be friendly, some were shocked by just how unfriendly it was.
He began with a powerful recounting of the horrors he had seen first-hand in Sierra Leone. “I saw toddlers whose arms were chopped with a machete [and] adults who had lost a nose or an ear, or hands or legs,” he said. “We saw a 13-year-old who had lost both her forearms-and was seven months’ pregnant with a rebel’s child.”
From there, however, he alienated many in the audience with his proposal that the industry pay “reparations” for the trade in conflict diamonds by donating $60 million to UNICEF and other charities to help the victims of African wars. Hall calculated the $60 million as 1% of the industry’s profits, but Hall spokeswoman Deborah DeYoung declined to say how he arrived at that number. He also said that $60 million represented the “taxes” the industry owed for smuggled “conflict diamonds”-which would mean that there are $1.8 billion in “conflict” diamonds sold each year. Global Witness, the lead human rights group on this issue, has calculated the number at $800 million, which means that Hall was off by $1 billion. On top of that, he suggested that the industry lend another $1 billion in micro-credit loans to fund development in Sierra Leone. He calculated this as “two months” of the industry’s salary-an allusion to De Beers’ engagement ring guideline. DeYoung said she “didn’t know” how Hall calculated this number.
“Congressman Hall relied on U.S. government and other information in drafting his speech,” DeYoung said. “The point is not the precise number. The point is the industry needs to do far more than it has in the past to meet the growing calls by activists and news accounts for an end to the ignominy that the money consumers spend on tokens of love are fueling these vicious wars.”
Hall also referred to the industry’s “decades-long history of neglect and exploitation [of Africa.]” When asked what that refers to, DeYoung replied by e-mail, “His statement speaks for itself.”
In a conversation with JCK, DeYoung declared that the diamond industry contributes less to charity than other industries-though she refused to back the statement up. (Hall’s chief of staff Rick Carne later said he disagreed with those remarks and others by DeYoung.) When told of De Beers managing director Gary Ralfe’s remarks at the congress that De Beers “tithes” a percentage of its profits to the countries it deals with, DeYoung replied: “Well, that’s good to hear. If [Hall] is misinformed, that’s fine.”
When the speech was over, some dealers called it a “shakedown.” But Carne, who also attended the congress, said that “some were taken aback by the forthrightness of what he said. But [by the end of the congress], many people came to me and said your boss was right.”
Once the joint resolution was announced, Hall-who left immediately after his speech-sent a letter praising the industry’s actions. “Please accept my congratulations on the historic step you have taken today on behalf of peace in Africa,” the statement read.
Diamond Dealers Club treasurer Mayer Herz, who brought Hall over and paid his way, is convinced that Hall eventually will be helpful to the industry, especially in helping New York dealers make direct contact with governments in Africa. “The diamond industry now has a friend in Washington,” he said.
Dealers and industry associations are hoping Hall will prove friendlier as he retools the CARAT Act to include much of what was said in Antwerp. They hope he will work with them to draft legislation they can support.