NGO Conflict Diamond Images Anger Industry

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A diamond line bracelet dangling off the blade of a machete. A diamond solitaire necklace draped over a hand grenade. An engagement ring on the barrel of a gun.

These are images distributed by Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to highlight the conflict diamond issue. Each contains a different message at the bottom: “The sale of illegal diamonds finances rape, murder and terror;” “One out of every six diamonds sold worldwide buys weapons for rebel groups in Africa,” or “Eight hundred thousand people have been harmed in wars financed by diamonds sold illegally.”

The pictures have angered many in the diamond industry because they say the photos equate all diamonds with violence and ignore the recent adoption of the Kimberley Process certification plan.

Nongovernmental organization activists handed the pictures out at the recent World Diamond Congress in London. They had planned to distribute them in the United States as postcards citizens could mail to Congress to call for conflict diamond legislation. They dropped those plans when the U.S. decided to enforce the Kimberley Process rules under existing law.

But the images reached a whole new audience when Advertising Age magazine highlighted them in its November 4 “Images of the Week” feature. Ad Age has a paid circulation of approximately 65,600. And as both the magazine and a critic of the pictures, Margaret Young of Ernest Slotar, point out, it is a powerful, influential readership.

“It all comes down to the images,” Young said. “People will forget the copy. They will remember the images — and the images here do not say, ‘Urge your senator to stop conflicts.’ They say ‘All diamonds are used to finance wars,’ ‘Diamonds equal weapons,’ and ‘If you wear a diamond, that means that you pay to maim mothers and children.’ If these images get into the hands of people who are professionals at getting images out, and if those people jump on this bandwagon, I think it could have a negative effect.”

But Adotei Akwei, Amnesty’s advocacy director for Africa, noted that it was the diamond industry itself that first became worried conflict diamonds could tarnish the whole trade’s reputation. “It seems a little bit ridiculous to say, ‘You’re tarnishing the whole image of diamonds,’ when by their own admission they realized that they needed a global, comprehensive solution to address this problem, and thereby started the Kimberley Process,” he said.

Jeff Fischer, vice president of the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA), said it was obvious the NGOs planned to continue attacking the industry no matter what happened at the World Diamond Congress or the Kimberley Process summit in Interlaken, Switzerland.

“I think it is an important time for the NGOs to face the industry with an open mind and reassess what our intent is, and what our actions have been,” Fischer said. “The diamond industry from day one said that we would be cooperative in developing systems which would regulate and make more transparent the rough diamond trade. But only in such a way that would not be burdensome or invasive to the industry. When they release material like this, it leaves large segments of the industry wondering if there is any way of satisfying these people.”

Matt Runci, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Jewelers of America, said the images are “more historically relevant than currently relevant.” He and Young both pointed out that the images only tell half the story of diamonds in Africa, because they ignore the schools that have been built, the AIDS funding that has been provided, and other benefits diamond money has brought to otherwise impoverished countries.

The differences over what the Amnesty images actually say mark a deeper schism between diamond traders and the NGO activists. Although they worked together on the Kimberley Process — and the NGOs credit the industry with making history by initiating and ratifying it — the relationship remains antagonistic. It reflects a classic clash of interests between market-oriented business leaders and regulation-minded muckrakers naturally suspicious of capitalism. The two sides remain in deep disagreement over how effective the Kimberley regime will be.

“While we welcome the important first steps taken by the industry and more than 40 diamond importing and exporting governments, the bottom line is that, as currently constituted, the Kimberley system cannot and will not do what it is supposed to do,” Akwei said. “It will neither end the trade in conflict diamonds nor restore confidence.”

The way conflict diamonds are defined in the resolution adopted in Interlaken is one flaw, Akwei added, because it may not apply to groups like al-Qaida, which is said to have turned much of its assets into diamonds. He said it only specifically addresses Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The NGOs also want trading monitored by someone outside of either government or the industry. And it remains unclear how trade disputes between nations that have adopted the Kimberley Process and those which have not will be resolved.

Akwei insisted that despite the striking images, Amnesty is not using them in a confrontational manner. The group is not currently planning to distribute the photos although they are available to other NGOs that may want to use them. Amnesty does want to keep the pressure on. It wants to educate consumers about conflict diamonds and encourage them to ask retailers about their stones’ origin and the Kimberley Process. And it wants to close the loopholes.

“We all acknowledged — maybe not as loudly as the industry would have liked — that the industry itself called for this legislation,” Akwei said. “We want the industry to move beyond what the governments agreed to. The postcards are resources that will continue to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue of conflict diamonds.”

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