8 November 2007

Cote d'Ivoire: Diamonds From Country Need Cleaning

Brussels — A new initiative for preventing diamonds from financing conflict in the Cote d'Ivoire has been agreed at an international conference in Brussels.

Since 2005 export of rough diamonds from Cote d'Ivoire has been banned by the United Nations due to violation of a ceasefire agreement between the Abidjan government and the New Forces guerrillas, which control the north of the country.

The embargo does not appear to have prevented Ivorian diamonds from entering Europe.

Last month it was reported that Belgian judicial authorities had confiscated 14 million euros (21 million dollars) worth of illegal diamonds of Ivorian origin. This was despite a screening system introduced by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre to block 'conflict diamonds' - gemstones sold to fund a war effort. Antwerp and London are Europe's two largest centres for trading diamonds.

The Cote d'Ivoire was one of the major topics of discussion at the annual conference of the Kimberley Process - a grouping of 73 countries - in Brussels Nov. 5-8.

The Kimberley Process was launched in South Africa in 2000, when a number of governments met to examine how trade in illicit diamonds could be halted. Most observers feel that it has brought tangible benefits, especially through introduction of an international scheme for certifying the origin of diamonds in 2003.

Participants agreed that there should be a new effort to improve controls on rough diamonds from Cote d'Ivoire, with particular attention paid to its neighbouring countries. This follows concerns raised by the UN Security Council about involvement of Malian smuggling rings in shipping Ivorian diamonds abroad.

In November 2006, the Kimberley Process agreed with Ghana that a number of measures should be taken, following indications that Ivorian diamonds could have been transported through this West African country.

Karel Kovanada, the European Union official currently chairing the Kimberley Process, said that the modalities of this approach will have to be worked out by experts but that it will probably imply greater use of on-the-spot checks. Ghana's exports already go through "extraordinary controls", he told IPS.

But hampering Ivorian shipments that go via its other neighbours may prove trickier. Unlike Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso have not yet joined the Kimberley Process. According to Kovanda, however, they have indicated their willingness to cooperate with it.

"The borders of Cote d'Ivoire are porous," said Ian Smillie, research coordinator with Partnership Africa Canada, an independent group that works to build sustainable human development in Africa. "The borders of its neighbours are also porous. Diamonds don't stop in Burkina Faso, if that is where they are going. They all reach world markets in Europe, the U.S., Japan and India."

During the 1990s, diamonds were a significant factor in the civil wars that devastated Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nearly 4 billion dollars worth of diamonds are believed to have passed through the hands of the Angolan rebel group UNITA in the 1992-98 period.

Smillie said that the proportion of conflict diamonds in the overall diamond trade may have fallen from 15 percent to less than 1 percent. "The Kimberley Process and other efforts helped to end this trade," he said.

Although the Process is based on voluntary regulation, countries which do not belong to it may not sell diamonds to countries that do. And countries where controls are deemed lax may be suspended from the Process. This happened in the case of Congo-Brazzaville. After providing an explanation on why there was a gulf between rough diamond exports from the central African country and its actual capacity for production, it was re-admitted this week.

Smillie urged that laws be introduced to ensure that countries carry out audits and checks on diamonds. "Industry has asked for tougher government controls on industry," he noted. "This is unusual. I can't think of many industries that would ask for tougher controls. But it is all voluntary. What I would like to see in the months and years ahead is that more governments adopt these and make them compulsory within their own jurisdictions."

Eli Izhakoff, chief executive with the World Diamond Council in New York, said it is "unprecedented" for an industry to seek the kind of controls that he favours over gemstone trading centres.

"Our policy is one conflict diamond is one diamond too much," he told IPS. "We are doing everything in our power, together with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and governments, to make sure the right controls are in place. We have done a lot but of course there is more to be done."

But Charmian Gooch, director of Global Witness, the organisation which exposed the role of diamonds in Angola's civil war, is not convinced that industry is being sufficiently vigilant.

Gooch said that one of the problems with the certification scheme introduced in 2003 is that it is not accompanied by an "oversight and verification mechanism", and does not provide for independent analysis of data.

"This resulted in a voluntary system of self-regulation parallel to the Kimberley Process because governments refused to take proper responsibility for the oversight of their own industries," she said.

"Independent monitoring neither takes place nor is required to verify industry compliance with such measures. This self-regulation will remain inadequate as long as it is not backed up by independent monitoring and government oversight. The diamond industry has failed to live up to its promise to create an auditable tracking system to ensure that diamonds are conflict-free."

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