Simmons, rights groups clash over diamonds

Human rights groups attacked Tuesday U.S. hip hop mogul Russell Simmons’ trip to an African diamond mine as a stunt to offset any possible public concern sparked by the upcoming Hollywood movie “Blood Diamond.”

Simmons defended his nine-day trip to South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique, saying he was concerned that too much attention was being placed on the illicit “conflict diamonds” that are the focus of “Blood Diamond,” which opens Friday.

So-called conflict diamonds, or blood diamonds, are mined in war zones and sold illicitly to fund war, insurgencies and human rights abuse. The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, shows the role of diamonds in Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.

“My country has paid dearly for these precious stones that people in this country give as a symbol of love,” Sorious Samura, a documentary maker from Sierra Leone, told a news conference held by Global Witness and Amnesty International.

Angola and Liberia have also suffered civil wars partly fueled by illicit diamonds, but the Ivory Coast has become the most recent focus, with nongovernmental groups saying rebels are smuggling gems out of the country.

Global Witness and Amnesty International warned that conflict diamonds remain a problem despite industry assurances more than 99 percent of diamonds are “clean,” and called for more industry regulation.

“Russell Simmons is being played by the industry. It’s another diamond industry publicity stunt,” Alex Yearsley, a Global Witness conflict diamond specialist, said. “We would suggest that’s out of a guilty conscience.”

De Beers: ‘Cut us some slack’At a separate news conference, Simmons said his tour of Botswana’s Jwaneng mine, the world’s richest mine in terms of value, was a bid to show the world how some African nations are benefiting from diamonds. The world’s biggest diamond producer, De Beers, is half owner of Jwaneng mine.

“My job is to take what’s good and make it better,” said Simmons, who also visited an education and food program in South Africa supported by De Beers. “I want to put light on that.”

To deflect a possible backlash from the film, the World Diamond Council trade group unveiled a campaign in September to counteract any negative publicity stemming from the movie.

“Please cut us some slack,” De Beers Botswana Chief Executive Sheila Khama said at the news briefing with Simmons. ”A lot of good has happened in Botswana because of diamonds.”

But Global Witness and Amnesty International said there were serious flaws with the Kimberley Process, an export monitoring deal implemented by governments in 2003 to prevent blood diamonds from entering the mainstream diamond market.

The groups said the Kimberley Process needed to be strengthened -- something Simmons agreed with -- and that the diamond industry needed to start self-regulation, such as bringing in independent auditors to verify diamond sales.

The rights groups and Simmons -- who launched a Diamond Empowerment Fund to raise money for the development of African diamond-mining communities -- agreed on another point.

“The answer to the problem is not to stop buying diamonds,” said Amy O’Meara from Amnesty International. “The answer is to make sure conflict diamonds aren’t being bought in stores.”

U.S. consumers buy about half of the world’s diamonds.