Panel Tackles ‘Conflict Diamonds’

A day after the industry agreed to a compromise on conflict diamond legislation, a panel kicked around the issue at a forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Though the moderator, former NBC newsman Marvin Kalb, struggled mightily to whip up controversy, the mood was mostly friendly in the aftermath of the industry’s endorsement of Rep. Tony Hall’s (D-Ohio) Clean Diamonds Act. Disagreement arose only in the session’s waning minutes, as audience questioners—notably John Leigh, Sierra Leone’s outspoken ambassador to the United States—took issue with panelists’ contention that conflict diamonds represent 4% of overall production. Leigh said that, considering the amount of stones exported by known transshipper Liberia, conflict diamonds actually represent 10% to 15% of total production.

Otherwise, there was general agreement on the scope of the problem, and agreement that Hall’s rewritten act presented a possible solution.

Claudius Davies, communications director of World Vision’s Sierra Leone office, recalled his experiences while living in the capital city of Freetown when the rebel army—the RUF—invaded.

“What would you do when rebels invade the city where you live … ordering families out of their houses, spraying them with hails of bullets, raping, looting, and amputating?” he asked. “My family can tell you … We went for days scavenging for whatever little food we could find. I ventured out one morning in search of food … The sight of scores of dead, decaying human corpses littering the streets there, gun-toting children and [fierce-looking] teenage rebels sent me hurrying back shivering and sweating.”

But he noted that the situation had improved and said he was particularly happy that the RUF had recently let World Vision assess the area it has controlled.

Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post, said that his experience as a correspondent in Sierra Leone had taught him first-hand that diamonds were a direct cause of the war. “The RUF has no discernible ideology,” he said. “They are a criminal gang. … Raising the bar on the process in which the rebels export diamonds should be a significant step.”

Hall also appeared on the panel and talked about his experience visiting Sierra Leone amputee camps.

“Sierra Leone should be one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” he said. “It has beautiful beaches, abundant resources. [Instead], right now, there are thousands of amputees. The health care system has basically collapsed.”

World Diamond Council executives Eli Izhakoff and Matthew A. Runci presented the industry’s point of view. Runci stressed that natural resources are “morally neutral” but added that the industry is trying to solve the problem. Izhakoff said he doesn’t feel the industry has been hurt yet by publicity over the issue.

Alfred Majaye Dube, minister for political and economic affairs at the Republic of Botswana’s embassy, stressed the good diamonds do for his country and said the “4% [conflict diamonds] must not hurt the 96%.”