Blood Diamonds Are Back

Why the U.N.-sanctioned system that's supposed to ensure that gemstones aren't mined at gunpoint is backfiring.

It's a safe bet that most of those surprised with diamond jewelry over the holidays did not pause long, if at all, to consider where their new gemstones came from. "Santa's elves" is a good enough answer for most people, and even those who are aware that some diamonds have been known to come from African war zones may not have given the matter much thought this year.

"Conflict diamonds," also known as "blood diamonds," are rough stones mined at gunpoint by slaves and prisoners for the enrichment of those holding the weapons. They were a cause célèbre at the beginning of the decade, when human rights groups exposed the role of diamonds in conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola, but in recent years the issue has largely fallen off the radar of socially conscious western consumers. That's not because the situation has improved.

The sordid business of blood diamonds was believed to have ended with the adoption in 2003 of the Kimberley Process, a UN-sanctioned agreement between 75 countries that import and export diamonds, diamond industry leaders and nongovernmental organizations. Its mission is to certify that diamonds on sale at the corner jeweler did not arrive there at the expense of murdered and mutilated Africans.

When controversy was stoked anew in 2006 with the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond, the industry simply pointed to the existence of the Kimberley Process to convince moviegoers that conflict diamonds were an old problem that had already been solved.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. In theory, all countries that are signatory to the Kimberley Process agree not to import or export conflict diamonds; the origins of the diamonds are "verified" through a set of simple-sounding procedures. Producing countries export their diamonds in tamper-proof packages accompanied by a certificate guaranteeing that the stones did not come from conflict zones (this assumes that robust internal controls exist in producing countries). The Kimberley Process monitors compliance through peer reviews, statistical analysis and site visits; countries found to be in violation of the agreement can be expelled or suspended, meaning they can no longer export their diamonds to any of the agreement's member countries.

The reality is different. According to recent reports by NGOs, including Global Witness, Partnership Africa Canada and Human Rights Watch, blood diamonds are still circulating freely and smuggling remains rampant. Some of the worst countries in the diamond business, such as Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, can't account for where as many as 50 percent of the diamonds they export originate, making their status as clean gems highly questionable. Meanwhile, Cote d'Ivoire, the only country considered to be the source of "official" conflict diamonds due to rebel control of its northern diamond mines, has expanded its production since it was placed under UN sanction in 2004, meaning the rebels are finding willing markets for them somewhere.

Not only does the Kimberley Process in its present form seem powerless to stop conflict diamonds, but its policies may even be encouraging the illegal trade to flourish. "A lot of governments have been happy to use the Kimberley Process as a fig leaf of respectability, so they can say, ‘OK, look we're doing something,'" says Elly Harrowell of Global Witness, one of the NGOs that first raised the issue of conflict diamonds a decade ago. "A lot of people, especially in the public, seem to think it's case closed."

Zimbabwe provides the perfect illustration of the problem the Kimberley Process was created to address, as well as the difficulties in fulfilling that mandate. Since 2006, when diamonds were discovered in Zimbabwe's eastern Marange fields, the country's police and military have engaged in systematic human rights abuses for their personal enrichment. According to an investigation earlier this year by Human Rights Watch, rotating garrisons of soldiers order civilians to dig diamonds at gunpoint. Miners are beaten, women are raped, and children are forced into labor. To secure the diamond fields and clear them of unlicensed independent diggers (who, according to the report, were initially encouraged by President Robert Mugabe's government to help themselves to the stones), the military conducted a scorched earth operation that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The diamonds are smuggled into neighboring Mozambique and onward to other countries where they can be exported under the cover of a Kimberley Process certificate, meaning they are then perfectly clean in the eyes of the world.

Both Human Rights Watch and a Kimberley Process investigative team that visited Zimbabwe in July considered the situation a clear violation of the agreement. Both recommended the country be suspended. Instead, it was given a grace period to clean up its act.

Rather than addressing a serious problem, this response from Kimberley Process administrators laid bare the system's weaknesses. Primary among them is a lack of political will to punish a country that condones violence and smuggling within its diamond industry. Such a failure is not only a massive blow to its credibility, but puts the entire process in jeopardy. If there are no consequences to violating the Kimberley Process, what incentives do other nations have to comply?

Nicky Oppenheimer, the chairman of De Beers, the world's largest diamond company, wrote diplomatically in a Bloomberg op-ed last week that he would have preferred more "decisive action" on Zimbabwe from the Kimberley Process: "Providing confidence about where these special symbols that mark moments in our lives come from, is integral to their enduring value."

Even former supporters of the Kimberley Process have become critics. "The whole point of the Kimberley Process was to make sure that diamonds were clean, that they're not hurting people," says Ian Smillie, the former director of the NGO Partnership Africa Canada, which is credited as one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Kimberley Process. "When you see serious human rights abuses taking place in diamond fields then surely it's a no-brainer [that something is wrong]."

Despite the criticism, there is widespread agreement that Kimberley can - and must - be fixed. NGOs are calling for the inclusion of a human rights provision to address problems like those in Zimbabwe. They want to do away with the consensus decision-making process in which it's possible for a single vote to veto important changes. And they've suggested the creation of a secretariat to provide independent oversight of reports and statistical analysis. All eyes are on the incoming Kimberley Process chairman from Israel to tackle these challenges.

Meanwhile, other groups, including Human Rights Watch, are focusing on the one group that has so far been capable of spurring change: consumers. Last month the organization called for a boycott of Zimbabwean diamonds. It was the threat of a boycott that inspired Kimberley's creation in the first place, and such threats still strike fear into the heart of the diamond industry.

As Jon Elliott, Human Rights Watch's Africa advocacy director, explains: "We're not naïve enough to think we're going to solve the problem overnight but we do think that unless there is pressure from consumers through the industry supply channels, we're not going to make significant progress.

For his part, Smillie seem less hopeful. He resigned from the Kimberley Process in May in frustration over what he called the system's "collective impotence." In his letter of resignation, he wrote: "There is a basic truth: when regulators fail to regulate, the systems they were designed to protect collapse ... In this case, the diamond industry, which means so much to so many, is being ill served by what has become a complacent and almost completely ineffectual Kimberley Process."

Until changes are made, holiday buyers beware.

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Containment Breach

Preventing nuclear war between Iran and Israel would be more difficult than it ever was to avoid a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here's why.

A number of influential policymakers and foreign policy analysts appear much too complacent regarding the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran. Former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid has argued that "[d]eterrence will work with Iran," and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar, one of the authors of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capabilities, has voiced similar opinions.

Deterrence in the Middle East, they argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. "Israel's massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon," wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. "Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran."

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Communication and trust. The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals' ability to understand the other's side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don't even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts -- and, what's more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders -- and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other's moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

Goals. The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism -- they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be "wiped off the map of the Middle East." After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt's President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to "liberate Palestine" (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel's border. The result was the Six Day War.

Command and control. In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran's decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran's byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

Mutual deterrence. Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel's (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, "Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack." If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war -- in John F. Kennedy's words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was "between one out of three and even." When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence. Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

Crisis instability. In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel's calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

The implications of a nuclear-armed Iran go well beyond the risks of an Iranian-Israeli war. Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel's  nuclear arsenal. However, they perceive Iran's nuclear weapons as a real strategic threat. A Middle East where more and more states have nuclear arms, known to experts as a saturated multiplayer environment, will present an almost insurmountable challenge for deterrence calculations by regional or external powers, and a still greater risk of serious instability. Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

If diplomacy and sanctions fail to prevent Iran from going nuclear, Israel will be caught on the horns of an acute existential dilemma not of its own making. If Israel does not act, it will face a future in which it will live under a nuclear sword of Damocles wielded by a state that has called for its destruction. If it does act in the face of what are, after all, probabilities rather than certainties, Israel must expect a serious conventional war that would include attacks from Iran's proxies Hamas and Hezbollah and an escalation in international terrorism, all in exchange for an uncertain degree of success. Contrary to the assessments of those who foresee a best case scenario of stable deterrence, , a nuclear-armed Iran will usher in a new era of instability in the Middle East -- with consequences that nobody can accurately predict, much less contain.

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