"People have been taught by very good advertising campaigns that diamonds mean love and devotion, but to a lot of people in Africa diamonds mean death, amputation and butchery," Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, told a news conference Wednesday to announce a proposal for stricter regulations on imported diamonds. More than half of the world's quality diamonds are sold in the United States.
"For each lucky American who gets a diamond there will be dozens of Africans who paid in blood."
Lawmakers can help stop those deaths by approving proposed legislation that would ban the importation of so-called "conflict diamonds" into the United States, said Hall, one of three co-sponsors of the Clean Diamonds Act.
Activists say the profits from such diamonds are used by groups in conflict zones -- primarily Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola -- to buy weapons and abuse human rights.
The Clean Diamonds Act calls for a global certification system to verify that diamonds sold on international markets are "clean." The act also urges establishment of a group to monitor the certification system, and requires that the new import regulations take effect by September.
The proposal would redirect profits from illegal diamond sales to help victims, Hall said.
"Any contraband diamonds caught entering the U.S. market can be seized and sold to pay for prosthetic limbs, microcredit projects, and other relief to war victims," he pointed out.
"That goes a long way in a place where an AK-47 is $6," he said.
Rebel groups "could not turn diamonds into contraband without complicity from the diamond industry," Hall said. "This has got to stop."
The diamond industry has long denied involvement in the illicit smuggling of "conflict diamonds," but last July the World Diamond Congress pledged to set up an international certification system that would track the origin and sale of diamonds.
Little has been done since then, speakers said.
A letter reminding the World Diamond Congress of its pledge was released at the press conference. The letter was signed by more than 50 human rights and faith-based groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Baptist Alliance and the National Council of Churches.
Hall said the proposal he co-sponsored with Reps. Cynthia A. McKinney, D-Ga., and Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., "gives the industry a year more than it said it needed to take the steps it should have undertaken years ago."
But speakers stopped short of calling for a boycott of diamonds.
"We're not advocating a boycott -- that has never been our intention," said Rory Anderson, government relations manager and Africa policies specialist with World Vision. "We just want diamonds to be used for development, not destruction."
The mangled ear and metal hook-hand of one speaker -- 27-year-old Muctar Jalloh -- bore testament to the suffering linked to the sale of conflict diamonds. Jalloh said he was attacked nearly two years ago by Sierra Leone's United Revolutionary Front -- whose annual diamond profits are at least $25 million, according to estimates.
"People stopped wearing fur because animals were being killed," said Jalloh, as two young girls from Sierra Leone -- each with arms amputated by rebels -- looked on from the audience. "Will you care more about animals than your African brothers?"