The sentencing of former warlord Charles Taylor last week reminded the world of the existence of – and the lasting damage caused by – that most shadowy of luxury goods: blood diamonds.
Liberia's former president was sentenced at an international court in The Hague to 50 years in prison after being found guilty last month of crimes against humanity. Taylor was convicted of having supported renegades in Sierra Leone in return for conflict diamonds towards the end of the last century.
Taylor's defense hinged largely on the idea that he was a mere facilitator, not the perpetrator, of the litany of horrors read out in court by prosecutors. This legal differentiation eventually led to Taylor's half-century long sentence, greatly mitigated from the 80 years prosecuting judges had called for.
In a similar manner, the concepts of association and culpability continue to stalk international efforts to put an end to the global blood diamond trade. It is fitting, therefore, that Taylor will begin the first of his 50 years behind bars in the United Kingdom in the same week that an international diamond-regulatory system known as the Kimberley Process (KP) will hold its biannual general meeting in Washington, which started on Monday.
Israel has become the world's largest diamond exporter, with revenues from the precious stones accounting for more than a third of its total annual exports.The KP has been the target of criticism from campaign groups since its inception (in 2003, a few months after the Taylor-fueled rampages of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front came to an end). Its detractors say its definition of a blood diamond, namely, “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to fund violence aimed at undermining legitimate governments,” is myopic, relevant to illegal diamond producing activities a decade ago but now out of date and out of touch with the realities of the illicit stone trade.
Since the KP, at least in its current form, only tracks the movements and origins of uncut diamonds, countries specializing in the cut variety of stones can churn out billions of dollars worth of diamonds each year, incubated from the sometimes awkward propriety questions the KP has been known to raise.
Due in part to this glaring KP loophole, Israel has become the world's largest diamond exporter, with revenues from the precious stones accounting for more than a third of its total annual exports. In 2008, Israel generated $9.4 billion through diamond exports, an amount increasing annually.
Since the process of cutting diamonds removes all traceable hallmarks, cut diamonds purchased from Israel are close to impossible to track, indistinguishable from diamonds sent from South Africa, Australia or North America, and end up at major trading hubs such as New York or Hong Kong, where they are purchased wholesale by diamond sellers across the globe.
Last month, members of the World Diamond Council (WDC) convened in Italy for their annual meeting and agreed that the KP's current definition of blood diamonds ought to be expanded to include “diamond-related violence in rough diamond producing and trading areas.” It stopped short of recommending that cut diamonds be included in the definition.
Global Witness, a London-based NGO, quit the KP last year after process members approved the export of diamonds excavated in Zimbabwe's Marange fields, long a suspected crucible for human rights abuses.
Mike Davies, a campaigner on conflict resources at Global Witness, accused KP members of turning a blind eye to similar rights abuses throughout diamond producing states.
“The KP is a club for governments that don't want to hold each other accountable,” he told Al-Akhbar. “It's not enough to point to a piece of paper and say 'This is our definition and if the killers and rapists in question wore an army uniform rather than allegiance to some rebel group it's not our problem.'”
Davies is an advocate for the KP encompassing cut diamonds into its definition of conflict gemstones, but admits this would prove “a much harder battle to fight still.”
Designating cut diamonds as potential conflict diamonds is clearly a controversial subject, as is Israel's mass exportation of the precious stones.
Several NGOs who have studied blood diamonds declined to comment when contacted by Al-Akhbar on the topic of diamonds in Israel, which could soon become a major excavator of the stones, instead of a mere exporter.
Israel’s Diamond Trail
Israel's only diamond explorer, Sehfa Yamin, has recently been granted licenses to conduct geological tests on 165,000 acres close to the northern port city of Haifa.
If the discovery of diamond-bearing kimberlite deposits can be properly harnessed, Israel could, in the coming decades, become a significant producer of uncut as well as cut diamonds, which would place some of its produce under the KP's jurisdiction.
the Israeli economy is heavily reliant on revenue generated from diamonds; be they in their cut form swallowed into the international market or excavated at source in Africa, the stones are the mainstay of Israel's finances.This is on top of Israel's numerous mining interests in countries, including Liberia, that are known to be fertile breeding grounds for blood diamonds. Israel offers technical expertise as well as trade agreements to several West African states involving in diamond mining.
In short, the Israeli economy is heavily reliant on revenue generated from diamonds; be they in their cut form swallowed into the international market or excavated at source in Africa, the stones are the mainstay of Israel's finances.
Israeli economist Shir Hever, in evidence given at 2010's Russell Tribunal on Palestine, said that it was the Israeli Defense Forces, among other organizations, that most benefited from Israel's lucrative diamond business.
“Overall the Israeli diamond industry contributes about $1 billion annually to the Israeli military and security industries,” Hever told the Tribunal. “Every time somebody buys a diamond that was exported from Israel some of that money ends up in the Israeli military, so the financial connection is quite clear.”
That is not counting the private diamond revenue that goes to the Israeli Army. Steinmetz, one of the world's leading diamond producers, owns a charitable foundation that has “adopted” a unit in the Israeli Army. The diamond giant is funding the notorious Givati Brigade, responsible for one of the worst atrocities perpetrated on the people of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
Israel's forces stand accused by the United Nations Human Rights Council of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. In the last decade alone, they have bombed civilians in Gaza and Lebanon, and scarcely a day passes without reports of violence or other unlawful methods employed against Palestinians.
While there are small campaigns to classify Israel's diamonds as conflict gemstones, the apparent apathy – indeed, complicity – of organizations such as the WDC on the matter makes for stiff opposition.
WDC President Eli Izhakoff declared during May's meeting that “under no circumstances should the diamond be associated with collective violence against communities” - precisely the kind of systemic repression against Palestinians that Israel's forces have been accused of perpetrating.
But when members of Israeli boycott movement Global Palestine Solidarity sent a joint letter to the Responsible Jewelry Council in April last year, activists were told by the Council's CEO that it “does not accept your proposition that the Israeli diamond industry, by virtue of being Israeli taxpayers, is funding human rights violations and that, thereby, the diamonds sold by Israeli companies should be considered 'blood diamonds.'”
Lebanon, too, is well known on the global diamond market, habitually not for positive reasons. Removed from the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) in 2004 in murky circumstances that allegedly involved US$500 million worth of Russian diamonds and Bahaeddine Hariri, Lebanon was eventually reinstated in 2007.
There is no foolproof mechanism for preventing Israeli diamonds, which go on to fund the crimes perpetrated by the Israeli Army, from entering any country, including Lebanon.But a potentially bigger hitch in Lebanon's diamond trade has gone unnoticed by brokers and officials. Between 40 and 45 percent of all Israeli cut diamonds end up each year in the US, accounting for close to half all cut diamonds sold in the US market. Other notable Israeli cut diamond markets include India, Switzerland, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.
These gems are, due to their cut state, effectively untraceable and so get mixed in trading hubs with diamonds from other major cut diamond exporters such as Belgium and the United Arab Emirates, from which diamond importing countries select their jewels.
Given the difficulties in tracking the origins of diamonds once they are cut, there is no foolproof mechanism for preventing Israeli diamonds, which go on to fund the crimes perpetrated by the Israeli Army, from entering any country, including Lebanon.
"Once the diamond has been cut, that's the end of the paper trail," Davis said.
Lebanon’s Unbeknownst Complicity
Although the Lebanese Syndicate for Jewelry Traders has insisted Lebanon has complied with the KP following its reinstatement, Israeli cut diamonds are not covered by KP protocol. The Syndicate's head, Atef Nsouli, declined repeated requests for comment from Al-Akhbar.
Given the nature of Israel's dominance in the international cut diamond market, and given Lebanon's vast annual importation of cut diamonds of various varieties, it is highly likely – although impossible to prove – that Lebanese consumers are inadvertently funding the Israeli Army through diamond purchases made in boutiques in Beirut. As one expert on the diamond trade put it to Al-Akhbar, Israeli diamonds "are no doubt flowing into Lebanon," unbeknownst to jewellers.
Several groups contacted by Al-Akhbar said they were unaware of the possibility of Israeli diamonds entering Lebanon. A spokesperson for the Boycott Department in the Ministry for Economy and Trade said they hadn't before considered such a possibility.
Even though Israeli diamonds are untraceable, the Lebanese government could seek to draw attention to Israel's de facto blood diamond trade. This has been done before by several civil society movements and Israeli boycott groups, although not in Lebanon.
If Israeli cut diamonds could conceivably be classified internationally as blood diamonds, their transit across the world would be severely stymied. Naturally, this will not come easily, given that both the WDC and the KP counts among their members several Israeli organizations.
That is not to say action cannot be taken. Asad Ghsoub, a member of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group in Beirut, said that campaign action launched against Israeli diamonds in general was one of Lebanon's options.
"If there is to be a campaign it should target blood and untraceable diamonds as a whole," Ghsoub told Al-Akhbar. "The fact that Israel could very well be benefiting from these diamonds should be one of the arguments to support such a campaign."
The group has said it will investigate the issue of Israeli diamonds potentially entering Lebanon, with a view to pressuring the government towards action.
"I don't see another way to make sure Israel doesn't benefit in this untraceable diamond business," Ghsoub added.
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