Global Policy Forum

Belgium's Diamond Imports Questioned


By Francois Misser

Times Media Limited/Business Day (South Africa)
March 14, 2000

Authorities say they are keen to apply embargo on Unita gems

- Since the end of 1998, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as the UK-based Global Witness have been lashing out at the insufficient controls on the origins of imported diamonds by the Belgian customs authorities the determining factor for the perpetuation of the illicit trade in conflict diamonds.

About 80% of the worlds rough diamond trade goes through Antwerp. More recently, a report from the Canadian NGO Partnership AfricaCanada, on the smuggling of Sierra Leons diamonds suspected of financing the war effort of the local guerrillas, reiterated the same accusation.

A recent joint statement from the Belgian foreign affairs and economy ministries says Belgium is keen to implement the United Nations (UN) embargo on diamond exports from Unita, the Angolan rebel movement of Jonas Savimbi. It points out that controls are being implemented by the customs officials at the diamond office in Antwerp. It stresses that except for Angola and Zambia, most African countries do not issue certificates of origin for the diamonds exported from their territory. It emphasises that it is impossible to identify with complete certainty the origin of diamonds.

Due to its prohibitive cost and the volume of the production to be controlled, micro-tagging identification is also impossible .

Nevertheless, the Belgian government announced a set of measures which will suppress import authorisations of gems of undetermined origin which are delivered for parcels of mixed origin, if they include stones under embargo. Customs officers will prosecute those responsible for false declarations of origins. Simultaneously, the regulating body of the Antwerp industry, the High Diamond Council, will assist African countries, such as Angola, in setting up a system of unfalsifiable certificates of origin and will exchange customs documents to improve the controls on the trade.

The government also announced stricter and more frequent customs controls. It has set up a task force grouping of experts from the economy, foreign trade and foreign affairs ministries and from the diamond council to consider further measures. It envisages for instance allowing UN observers to monitor the measures implemented by the council.

In the same way that the Belgian administration is fighting conflict diamonds, it is keen to fight antidiamond propaganda. Only a small part of the trade is connected with conflict situations and arms trade, it argues. It points out that the diamond sector represents only 7% of the countrys gross domestic product. It makes up a larger proportion is in countries like SA, Namibia and Botswana, where it is essential for the development of the economy.

Belgium warns that diamonds are only one part of the story about conflicts. Attention should be focused also on other sources of funding, including drug trafficking.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel suspects some foreign interests are using the pretext of NGO campaigns for purposes of unfair competition. Diamond dealers in Antwerp allege that there is a strange coincidence between the Canadian NGOs call to boycott diamonds from Cte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia; the Ottawa governments funding of this campaign and the vested interest of Canadas rapidly expanding mining industry which will become one of the worlds foremost in 10 years time to eliminate rivals. Moves by SA diamond company De Beers to guarantee the stones it sells that do not come from rebel-held territories and not to purchase any more diamonds from Angola, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are also criticised.

Industry sources say the unilateral ban goes far beyond UN requirements and concerns countries which are not under UN embargo. De Beers is using supplied by imports from the zones of Africa which De Beers does not control.

Note to editor: In antwerp, the "outside market" means exactly: all imports of rough diamonds which are not supplied from the central selling organisation. The sightholders are the cso's clients. ready for questions.

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