'Blood Diamond': The Way It Was

Friday, December 15, 2006

Riffing on the opening of the Leonardo DiCaprio film "Blood Diamond," the State Department's own rock stars, Paul E. Simons, deputy assistant secretary for energy, sanctions and commodities, and Sue Saarnio, special adviser for conflict diamonds for the Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, briefed the media last week on what the United States is doing to stop the world's bad actors from selling diamonds to finance their nefarious doings. Their theme: "That movie is sooo1999 -- diamond-dealing despots are much better behaved these days." Briefing excerpts follow.

-- Elizabeth Williamson

Simons: We thought this was a good opportunity to update the press on some of the activities that the U.S. government is undertaking on the conflict-diamonds issue. As you all know, the "Blood Diamond" movie . . . gives us a good opportunity to bring you up to speed on what's been happening on the government side. We feel the film provides a good historical snapshot of the diamond industry, particularly back in 1999. We do think we've come a long way since the bloody atrocities committed in Sierra Leone depicted in that movie. . . . The main achievement over the past seven years has been that 71 countries, together with the diamond industry and prominent civil society groups, have worked together to form the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. . . .

The Kimberley Process is basically a dynamic international trade regime established in 2003 to control and monitor the trade in rough diamonds. . . . All the world's major diamond producers, polishers and consumers are part of this Kimberley club. The members of the club agree only to trade with other members of the club.

Question: It is said that you can carry . . . millions of dollars' worth of diamonds in your pocket. . . . What gives you grounds for assurance that this process is not being fairly massively circumvented by, you know, people with ill intentions?

Simons: Well, I think the important thing is when we set up Kimberley, all three components -- governments, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the industry -- committed to a new transparent effort to monitor trade in rough diamonds. . . . The reputation of the industry, the reputation of the governments and the reputation of the NGO stands on the integrity of the Kimberley Process, so the incentives to accept smuggled diamonds are, I think, substantially reduced, because by introducing smuggled diamonds into this regime, you're undermining the reputation of the diamond industry worldwide, and you're undercutting your own interests.

Question: How has this process affected the people at the very lowest level of this chain, the ones who are . . . digging in muddy pits in Africa? Has this affected them in any way, positive or negative?

Simons: Well, certainly. At the height of the problem, Sierra Leone and Liberia were both under U.N. sanctions and were prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions from exporting any rough diamonds. So they were basically cut completely out of the world market, and that obviously had implications. That had to be done because of the conflict nature of the diamonds that were fueling the insurgencies.

But since order has been restored to Sierra Leone and the government has gotten back in control there and has built up its diamond -- its ability to monitor and control the diamond activity in that country, the legitimate exports of Sierra Leone have gone from virtually zero up to more than $140 million last year, so -- and a lot of that money is filtering back into local communities.

Question: Are you at all concerned that this new film, which will probably have a bigger impact on the public perception about diamonds than any other single source, might cause a lot of misperception?

Simons: I think that's the reason that we've gathered you here today. I think that the film was very good, but it does present a picture of what was going on in 1999. . . . A lot of hard work has gone on. There has been, you know, a wholesale reform in the whole way that rough diamonds are traded internationally. And also an extreme consciousness level on the part of the industry and governments to make sure that any report of conflict diamonds is very carefully tracked down and remediation plans put in right away so that this -- so that the image of the diamond industry remains good.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company