ANTWERP, Belgium — The international diamond industry announced strict new measures Wednesday to clamp down on the trade in "conflict diamonds" used to pay for wars in Africa.
The measures include a certification system to closely track rough diamonds from the time they're mined, as well as tough penalties for dealers who break U.N. embargoes on diamond sales by rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone. They come in response to widespread accusations that several African rebel groups have financed bloody civil wars using proceeds from illicit diamond sales.
"We will immediately close off all the legal loopholes by which conflict diamonds may currently be entering the market," said a statement issued at the end of the World Diamond Congress, a meeting of industry officials.
The decision was immediately welcomed by human rights groups.
"These proposals go a long way to meeting many of the concerns about conflict diamonds," said a statement issued by eight rights monitoring groups that have campaigned for a cleanup of the industry.
African delegates, including South African Minerals and Energy Minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, voiced concern during the congress that implementation of the new rules would be difficult and arduous in nations battered by years of war and plagued by poverty. Nonetheless, they said, the changes are needed and will go a long way toward combating the illicit trade.
Under the new rules, all rough diamonds will have to be shipped in sealed packages certified by authorities in the exporting nations. The packages will have to be verified by a new international diamond council, said Sean Cohen of the International Diamond Manufacturers Assn.
Cohen said the diamond industry leaders will meet today with representatives of concerned governments in London. They hope to get the new global certification process in place before Christmas.
Industry officials said anyone found trading in illicit diamonds will be excluded from the business.
"We don't want these people, we don't need them," said Peter Meeus, head of the Antwerp High Diamond Council. "Anyone who breaks the embargo will be banned."
Pressure on the diamond trade had come from the United Nations, Western governments and the rights groups, which warned of a consumer backlash against the $6-billion-a-year industry unless it severs links with rebels behind some of Africa's most brutal civil wars.
"Young men will require proof that the diamonds they place on their fiancees' fingers have not been the cause of the amputation of a finger, or an arm, of a person in Sierra Leone," Canadian U.N. Ambassador Robert Fowler told the World Diamond Congress on Tuesday. "The diamond industry must take the lead . . . in demonstrating publicly that its products are conflict-free."
Fowler did much to focus international attention on the problem with a U.N. report on smuggling by Angola's UNITA rebels. The report showed how traffickers working in the often-labyrinthine trails from African mines to international trading centers can easily sidestep existing regulations.
Those regulations require certificates of origin to state only from where a diamond was last exported, not where it was mined.
So far, control efforts have been hampered by some African nations' complicity with rebels and smugglers. Liberia, Burkina Faso and Togo are among those that have been singled out for criticism.
Despite the difficulties, Fowler said progress has been made in Angola in recent months thanks in part to help from the international diamond industry.
Conflict diamonds are estimated to account for about 4% of the diamonds produced each year, feeding a retail industry worth more than $50 billion.
"Whether it's 4% or 1%, it's one diamond too many," said Cohen, who is president of the diamond manufacturers group. "Over the three days of deliberations, it was very clear that the feeling of everyone was conflict diamonds are not acceptable."