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US House Passes 'Conflict Diamond' Bill - 2001-11-28

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation aimed at cracking down on the illicit trade in so-called conflict diamonds, or diamonds mined and sold to fund civil wars in Africa.

The legislation would give the president the authority to impose sanctions on countries refusing to adopt a system of tracking diamonds that would ensure buyers they were from a legitimate source.

The measure is a compromise between bill sponsors who had wanted automatic sanctions and the White House, which feared the automatic penalty could alienate countries working with the United States on its anti-terror campaign.

In underscoring the need for the legislation, supporters described how rebel groups in Africa have bought weapons through diamond sales and gone on to commit atrocities against civilians in their fights against elected governments.

Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia said, "Throughout the 1990s, civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Congo have raged on, fueled by a scramble for diamonds. More than two million people have been killed in these wars and more than 6.5 million people have been driven from their homes."

Democratic Congressman Tony Hall of Ohio, a chief sponsor of the bill, said, "If we can start that program, if we can have a system now to control blood diamonds, we will start to save some lives. That is not bad."

The bill focuses primarily on rough diamonds, which look like pebbles. A tracking system for polished diamonds and jewelry would not be required, but the president would have the authority to seize such shipments if there is evidence indicating they may have been conflict diamonds.

The bill also includes $10 million over two years to help developing nations set up certification systems.

Human rights groups and the diamond industry support the legislation.

Industry officials say conflict diamonds make up about four percent of the world's $6 billion a year diamond trade. Human rights groups estimate the level at closer to 15 percent.

A similar compromise bill is expected to pass in the Senate before the measure is sent to President Bush.

Mr. Bush's expected signature would make the United States, which imports two-thirds of the world's diamonds - the first country to regulate the diamond industry.