Congo Suspended From World


By Daniel Balint-Kurti

Associated Press
July 10, 2004

A U.N.-backed body barred the Republic of Congo from the legitimate world diamond trade, accusing it of blatantly sending millions of dollars in smuggled gems onto the global market. Suspending the west African country was "necessary to safeguard the credibility and integrity" of international efforts to block black-market conflict diamonds from the $60 billion annual diamond business, said the group.

The suspension was imposed after a May 31-June 4 mission to Republic of Congo that concluded the country had smuggled in from surrounding nations virtually all of the reported 5.2 million carats Republic of Congo had been putting into the market each year through Europe and the Middle East. Republic of Congo's officials trafficked the gems through the lesser diamond centers of Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates to evade more rigorous controls at the world's diamond hub, Antwerp, Belgium, investigators said, in confidential findings first reported Friday by The Associated Press.

The Canada-based Kimberley Process Certification Scheme announced the ban in a statement released on its web site late Friday in Ottawa. "The findings of the review mission are clear. The Republic of Congo cannot account for the origin of large quantities of rough diamonds that it is officially exporting," Tim Martin, the Kimberley Process chairman, said in the statement. Kimberley Process dealers "must have complete confidence that conflict diamonds are not entering the legitimate trade," Martin said.

The Kimberley Process was established with diamond industry backing in late 2002. The effort came in response to growing world concern about "blood diamonds" that fueled and funded 1990s insurgencies that killed millions of people in Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The process is meant to track diamonds from mines to jewelry display cases, certifying their origins so as to keep conflict diamonds out of the system. Forty-five countries have signed on to the process, representing 98 percent of the world diamond trade, Kimberley officials say.

Suspension closes legitimate diamond-trading channels to the Republic of Congo, barring the gems from Kimberley Process signatories including Belgium, the world's diamond-trading center, and the United States, which buys two-thirds of the world's diamonds.

Republic of Congo, which has little or no actual diamond production of its own, long has stood accused of dealing in smuggled diamonds from two diamond-rich, unstable neighbors — the similarly named Congo, and the Central African Republic. Investigators, in their report, found Republic of Congo was exporting diamonds at a rate "approximately 100 times greater than its estimated production." Republic of Congo authorities subsequently were unable to account to Kimberley Process officials for the "massive discrepancy" of their large-scale exports "in the absence of any reported production or imports," Martin said in his statement.

Republic of Congo officials — apparently seeking to evade taxes and hide revenues — also were formally declaring the gem-quality stones in Switzerland at far less than their market price, investigators concluded: just 98 U.S. cents a carat on average, compared to the average market price of US$75.90 a carat for uncut, unset stones.

Republic of Congo denied all the allegations. It denounced the suspension, calling it "arbitrary."

Expulsion of Republic of Congo throws into question "the credibility of the Kimberley Process," mining ministry official Louis-Marie Djama told the AP on Saturday. "I can't see what conflict diamonds could come into our country." Djama accused other Kimberley Process nations, particularly neighboring Congo, of conspiring to have it banned.

Diamond-rich Congo and diamond-poor Republic of Congo face each other across the Congo River. Congo was wracked by a 1998-2002 war perpetuated in part by combatants' desire to keep plundering Congo of its diamonds and other resources. Congo by last year managed to climb back up to the No. 5 position among world diamond producers. Congo welcomed news of the ban on its neighbors. "It is a small but important step to stabilizing the region," said Victor Kasongo, head of Congo's diamond regulatory body.

The suspension was the third worldwide from the Kimberley process, and the second active one. Lebanon was suspended in March this year, because its president did not pass into law legislation making the Kimberley Process a legal entity in his country. It remains suspended. An international diamond embargo still stands on Liberia. The West African nation was a major trafficker in smuggled arms and diamonds under former President Charles Taylor, who fled into exile last August.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Congress, and released earlier this week, urges broadening the Kimberley Process to block alleged African diamond trade benefiting terror groups, including al-Qaida.

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