Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Campaigners chide UK shops over Africa "blood" gems

DAKAR, May 29 (Reuters) - Britain's top retailers are not doing enough to prevent conflict diamonds from Africa reaching consumers, rights groups said on Tuesday, on the eve of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's farewell visit to the continent.

Global Witness and Amnesty International said a survey of 42 British retailers found more than three-quarters of them had no auditing procedures to curb the trade in illicit gems from conflict areas, known as "blood diamonds".

The illegal gem trade fuelled wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia for more than a decade. More than 4 million people died in these conflicts, which have now ended, although gem smuggling continues.

Blair, who made combating poverty in Africa a hallmark of his 10 years in office, is due to visit Sierra Leone on Wednesday on the second stop of an African tour.

The British prime minister, due to step down on June 27, is widely regarded as a hero in Sierra Leone for Britain's role in ending a 1991-2002 civil war, notorious for drug-crazed child soldiers who hacked the limbs off civilians.

"After all the promises the diamond industry has made it is very disappointing to find that retailers in the UK are still not taking the necessary steps to ensure the diamond supply chain is cleaned up from mine to shop counter," Amnesty's UK Business Campaigner Nick Dearden said.

Almost a third of retailers surveyed, including John Lewis [JLP.UL] and House of Fraser, failed to respond to repeated requests to provide information, the rights groups said.

The Kimberley Process Certification System was launched in 2002 to verify the origin of gems and exclude conflict diamonds from the market. Currently 46 countries belong to the system.

A report by Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), an observer in the Kimberley Process, said conflict diamonds represented as much as 15 percent of the world's total in the mid-1990s but has fallen to less than 1 percent.

Campaigners, however, say the Kimberley Process is not tight enough to cope with a relapse into civil war in West Africa.

Although the region's intertwined wars of the 1990s have subsided, Ivory Coast remains divided between a rebel north and a government south as a peace process creeps forward.

A U.N. report concluded last year that Ivorian rebels were smuggling diamonds via Mali and Ghana to fund their operations, in violation of sanctions.

In Congo, fighting continues in the vast former Belgian colony's lawless east in the wake of a 1998-2003 war, and diamond smuggling remains rife.

The United Nations recently lifted a ban on diamond exports from Liberia, but Global Witness said diamonds continued to be smuggled illegally from the country.

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