WASHINGTON — Blood diamonds were once the scourge of African nations used to fund years of brutal civil wars. Now a UN-mandated watchdog aims to stop gem greed from fueling more violence in trouble spots.
Some 10 years after the Kimberley Process (KP), representing 76 countries, was set up to quell the trade in "conflict diamonds," the group is looking to broaden its scope and stop any trade in gems tainted by systemic violence.
After a four-day meeting in Washington of the group which also brings together the diamond industry and NGOs, chairwoman Gillian Milovanovic said the United States was proposing a new definition of what is a conflict diamond.
Currently the group seeks to staunch the flow of rough diamonds used by rebel movements to fund wars against legitimate governments by a tough regulation process, and certifying that gems have been legally mined and sold.
If agreed the organization's certification scheme would be modified to cover "rough diamonds used to finance, or otherwise directly related to, armed conflict or other situations of violence," she said Thursday.
Milovanovic told a press conference that the new language "would expand the definition of conflict beyond something which involves rebel groups seeking to overthrow a legitimate government."
An estimated $13 billion in diamonds are mined every year, about 65 percent, or some $8.5 billion, of which come from African nations, according to the World Diamond Council.
Since the Kimberley Process was launched in 2003 to address global concern, sales in "blood diamonds" have fallen to one percent of international trade compared with estimates of up to 15 percent in the 1990s.
In one of the most notorious cases, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was accused by an international court of being paid in diamonds worth millions by Sierra Leone rebels -- some stuffed into mayonnaise jars.
In exchange, Taylor handed over weapons and ammunition to the rebels helping fuel a decade-long civil war which cost 125,000 lives and recruited thousands of child soldiers.
But human rights groups have become increasingly concerned that the current definition of a "blood diamond" is too narrow, and that some nations -- in particular Zimbabwe -- are being allowed to legally export diamonds despite reports of killings and abuse at its mines.
The issue came to a head in December, when one of KP's founders, the activist group Global Witness, quit angered by the continued and controversial sale of diamonds from the Marange mines in Zimbabwe.
Human rights groups maintain some 200 miners were killed in a 2008 army operation to clear small-scale miners from the area.
Zimbabwe was also in the spotlight here after two top officials who are under economic sanctions -- Mines Minister Obert Mpofu and Attorney General Johannes Tomana -- were allowed to participate in the Washington talks.
"Their participation is in no way indicative of an easing of US concerns about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, nor is it a change in our sanctions policy," Deputy State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said.
But activists, and even the leaders of the Kimberley Process, say the organization is now in need of reform.
"The KP can no longer shut its eyes to the way in which the world and the diamond-related violence has changed over the last decade," said Bernard Taylor, from the non-government organization Partnership Africa-Canada.
The organization had "to find a definition that can respond to organized and systemic violence in diamond producing and trading zones, irrespective of whether the perpetrator is a rebel group, state actors or private security companies," he added.
Eli Izhakoff, president of the World Diamond Council, told reporters: "The industry and the NGOs have agreed on human rights language. We have agreed a discussion should open regarding the definition of conflict diamonds."
But participants confirmed to AFP there was still some reluctance on the part of mainly African nations to modify the definition.
South African representative Thibedi Ramontja said: "The whole issue about whether we should change the definition of conflict diamond is the view of some participants... We have to debate those issues until a consensus is reached."
South Africa will take over as chair of the Kimberley Process from January 2013, and it is hoped the new definition will be voted on and approved by the next full session of the group in Washington in November.