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Dirty Diamonds Finance Wars

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Some of the money spent on diamonds has fueled civil wars in African countries and led to the deaths of scores of Black civilians.

Pick up a magazine, a CD or turn on the TV and it's easy to see which eternally chic item is a sister's (and a brother's) best friend: diamonds. Our lust for the "bling bling" goes way beyond the simple engagement ring. We watch rappers rhyme in their videos, flashing "ice"-encrusted gold front teeth, and we dance to Lil' Kim fantasizing, as she raps "Depending how I feel/I might go on a heist/ So at my wedding I can throw ice/instead of throwing rice."

But for those of us whose purchases pushed diamond sales up 11 percent last year to $56 billion (the United States buys 65 percent of the world's jewelry-quality diamonds), the ice we buy may be killing our people: Some of the money spent on diamonds has fueled civil wars in African countries and led to the deaths of scores of Black civilians.

In recent years, rebel armies in Angola and Sierra Leone have taken over government-owned diamond mines to fund their coup efforts. These organizations — Unita in Angola, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone — trade unrefined diamonds for arms. Launderers then sell the illegal gems, known internationally as "blood" or "conflict" diamonds, on the open market.

Since civil war escalated in Angola in the early '90s, 500,000 civilians have been killed, 90,000 maimed by landmines and 4 million displaced. Last year, RUF rebels attacked Freetown, in Sierra Leone, and chopped the hands off of thousands of men, women and children, solidifying their takeover of local diamond mines. American officials have accused leaders in other African countries, such as Liberia and Burkina Faso,of laundering the blood diamonds.

Stemming the Violence


Blood diamonds account for merely 4 percent of the world's diamonds, but even this small percentage has paid for billions of dollars in weapons that have cost thousands of Africans their lives.

To stem the bloodshed, the United Nations embargoed Angolan diamonds in 1998. The UN also banned diamonds from Sierra Leone this year after rebels there took 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. But because it is hard to distinguish blood diamonds from other stones without expert examination, keeping the illegal gems off the market is almost impossible.
This could soon change, though. Under threat of a boycott by human-rights groups worldwide, the diamond industry agreed this summer to develop a coding system that can track packaged, unrefined diamonds to their originating country. And Gemprint, a Toronto-based company, now has a process that can store a diamond's unique image in an international computer database, making it traceable.

In the United States, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), has sponsored the CARAT Act, which calls for tighter controls in the global diamond trade, and protection against consumer backlash for democratic countries that depend on diamond revenue. Email him a letter of support at www.house.gov/tonyhall/pr111h.htm . Also encourage your own representative to approve the CARAT Act(see sample letter below). You can reach your rep through www.house.gov or www.senate.gov . Here's how else we can help:

When buying a diamond of least 1/4 carat in size, ask the jeweler for the diamond's certificate of origin. (Such certificates are rare, now but the UN, CARAT Act and diamond industry are pushing for a uniform document, especially for diamonds that are 1/4-carat and up. Those solitaires are the most valuable.)

If the jeweler doesn't have a certificate, ask where the gem was mined. Jewelers should know where their diamonds are mined, considering the international embargoes.

The more questions we ask about blood diamonds, the more pressure we put on the industry to stop the flow of the illegal rocks, says Rory Anderson, Africa policy specialist for World Vision, a human rights group. "Jewelers are very sensitive because [they know] a diamond is a luxury — people can buy somewhere else," Anderson says. "When you have a series of people asking questions the jewelers will say, 'This is a problem."


You can also save yourself the expense and uncertainty of blood on your diamonds by investing in something else — like real estate and stocks — that can increase your wealth.
Sample letter:

Date

Dear ___________,

I urge you to push for tighter controls of the global diamond trade by supporting the CARAT Act, sponsored by Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio). We need measures to ensure that our purchases don't fuel the civil wars in African countries that have caused the deaths of scores of Black civilians.

Let's make sure that the United States helps to stem the flow of "blood diamonds."Sincerely,

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