The war against terrorism is once again highlighting the issue of conflict diamonds, also called "blood diamonds." The jewels have funded weapons purchases in war-torn African countries and elsewhere. Awareness of the issue has been growing in the international community - especially following new reports that diamond sales are believed to have been used to pay for al-Qaida weapons purchases.
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington Wednesday, University of Maryland professor Virginia Haufler said the current international anti-terrorism campaign has led to a renewed interest in conflict diamonds. "The war on terrorism," she said, "is focusing political attention on the circuits on which terrorists are financed. And those circuits often overlap with the funding for these bloody conflicts in places like Sierra Leone."
On Tuesday, The Washington Post newspaper reported that arms dealer and former Soviet military officer Victor Bout traded weapons to groups such as the Taleban and al-Qaida for diamonds from Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.S. Congress has been working on the issue. The House of Representatives in November passed the "Clean Diamonds Act," which authorizes, but does not require, the U.S. President to take action against individual countries that do not abide by what it calls "a clean diamonds regime."
Holly Burkhalter, Advocacy Director of Physicians for Human Rights, praised the House for passing the bill. But she said it does not strongly enough regulate the legitimate international diamond trade, because of Bush administration concerns about the legislation's compatibility with the World Trade Organization. She said, "My view is that the United States should go ahead and put the thing to the test. If Liberia wants to sue us at the WTO, come on, we'll take them on. Let's see what happens."
She said Liberia has no diamonds itself, but is one of the chief marketers of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, where illegitimate diamond profits help fund a brutal civil war that has resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 people.
Ms. Burkhalter adds that one of the leading opponents to tougher restrictions on international diamond trading is Russia. She alleges that is because of the influence of the Russian mafia, which she said is deeply involved in the diamond trade. "They don't want to form up to any international regimen, and they especially don't want to have anyone looking at their books, because there is so much under the table, over the table, around the table - in every trade, but especially that one. It's a dirty trade," she said.
A version of the "Clean Diamonds Act" is also pending in the U.S. Senate. David Field, the press secretary for Senator Dick Durbin, the bill's lead sponsor, said the details are still being ironed out. But he predicts that the act could come to a vote within a month.