Rally Against Conflict Diamonds Held in NYC

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By Amber Michelle

A small group of protesters organized by Congressman Tony Hall (Democrat-Ohio), Amnesty International, and Friends of Sierra Leone marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue in an effort to educate consumers about diamonds that are funding civil war in Sierra Leone.

The band of about 20, carried signs that read “Stop Gemocide” and “Diamonds Aren’t This Girls Best Friend,” the latter carried by one of several amputee children that were in the march. The group stated that its mission was to educate the public about diamonds being used to fuel the war in Sierra Leone. The goal is to persuade consumers to ask jewelers the country of origin of a diamond before purchasing the gem. If the diamond is from any country where diamonds are used to fund war, they ask consumers to refuse to purchase that stone. The protesters stopped in front of Cartier, where they held a press conference and passed out leaflets to mostly disinterested passers-by. Although the group stopped in front of Cartier, it was not because of any particular offense created by the retailer, it was a random choice and it is the last of the major luxury jewelers on Fifth Avenue. Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International lobbyist on Sub Saharan Africa, said that the event was to mobilize action in the diamond industry and Congress as quickly as possible.

“Efforts are being made, but we are not seeing results quickly enough,” said Akwei. “The goal is to get legislation to pass against conflict diamonds before the end of this session of Congress.”

In addition, Akwei also asked that the diamond industry aggressively lobby Congress to give teeth to any legislation that is presented. Currently, Judd Gregg (Republican – Rhode Island) wants to introduce legislation to Congress to help control conflict diamonds.

The protesters want the industry to stop buying diamonds from Sierra Leone completely until the proper measures to monitor the export and import of the gems are firmly in place. The organizers of the group stressed that they did not want people to stop buying diamonds from countries where diamonds benefit the economy, only those from Sierra Leone.

Request to De Beers

The group also had a request for De Beers, which has stopped buying diamonds in Sierra Leone, but has a vast stockpile of stones collected over many years that it is releasing on to the market. The protesters suspect that some of the diamonds in that stockpile are from Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo. The request to De Beers is to give the profits from the sale of any diamonds in its stockpile originating from the war ravaged countries, back to the people of those countries.

Hall’s Figures

“The United States buys 65 percent of all the diamonds in the world,” said Congressman Tony Hall, who addressed the press during the event. Hall is responsible for introducing the Carat Act; legislation aimed at halting the flow of conflict diamonds into the U.S. “Ten to 15 percent of diamonds in the U.S. are blood diamonds. Americans can ask their jeweler where a diamond comes from. Jewelers can decide to put a certificate of origin on a diamond, or not buy diamonds from countries where they fund wars. We want Americans to know that they can do something abut the atrocities in Africa. Many of these diamonds are 2 carats and above, which is one way to tell that they may come from these countries.”

According to Hall, who gets his figures from U.S. government sources including USAID, $10 billion dollars worth of diamonds have been used to fuel conflict in Africa in the past ten years. Hall also asserted that 30 percent of the diamond industry’s profits are earned from the sale of conflict diamonds. The percentage of diamonds from war zones is small —Hall’s figures indicate 10 to 15 percent — the stones are higher quality and larger and therefore sell for more and account for most of the industry’s profits, said Hall. The Ohio Congressman also stated that rebel forces earn $37 million per day from selling diamonds, garnering $1.4 billion a year.

The war in Sierra Leone is characterized by its particular savagery against civilians. According to Abdul Conteh, a native of Sierra Leone who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and now plays professional soccer in San Jose, California, the trouble began when the current government disbanded the army. Some who had been part of the army were disgruntled by the change and formed a rebel army to fight the government. The rebels needed money to survive and they got it by taking over the diamond-rich areas of the country through a patrol of terror. The army forced people out of their homes by going into villages and hacking off the arms, legs or ears of men, women and children. An army that started out as 400 to 500 is now 25,000 to 30,000 strong.

Muctar Jalloh, an amputee victim from Sierra Leone and a spokesperson for the nation’s amputee children was present at the rally and had spoken the day before to the Africa Subcommittee of the International Relations Committee, House of Representatives. He stressed that the conflict in Sierra Leone had nothing to do with tribal or religious affiliations, but was strictly about control of the country’s diamond mines. According to Jalloh, 20,000 men, women and children are amputees.

Conteh, who has started a foundation to raise money to help the people of Sierra Leone, explained why the rebels attack so viciously: “The rebels said ‘Sierra Leone is your country. It is in your hands.’ They took hacking off limbs as a symbolic move and as a move to create terror in the country. People left the diamond mining areas because they were afraid of the rebels. But 20 years from now the country will have a real problem because there are so many amputees.”

Sierra Leone is rich in many natural resources, but diamonds are particularly easy to acquire since only a pick is needed to find them and the rough is easily smuggled out of the country into neighboring Liberia.

“Liberia is the biggest problem because a lot of money laundering goes on there,” said Conteh. “There are efforts being made to secure the border, which is very long. But Sierra Leone no longer has an army. The United States gave Sierra Leone $6 million to help create and train an army.”

Although there was limited interest from passers-by on the street, the group deemed the march a success at it was attended by many members of the mainstream press. There are currently no firm plans for future rallies.

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