Israel to help revive Liberia gem trade

Israeli diamond industry pledges to help Liberia after UN lifts sanctions banning diamond trade.

Olmert Liberia 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert Liberia 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Israel on Tuesday offered to help overhaul Liberia's diamond industry, marking another step in the rehabilitation of the battle-scarred West African country after the lifting of UN sanctions to block its trade in banned "blood diamonds." Alongside Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Israel Diamond Institute Chairman Moti Ganz and Liberia's minister for mines, Eugene Shannon, signed an agreement in which Israel said it stood ready to give expert help "in conducting a full-scale and in-depth survey of the Liberian diamond industry and its potential." Israel does not produce diamonds itself but is a leading polishing and trading center. The Diamond Institute claims to have the world's largest diamond trading floor, and spokeswoman Sharon Gefen said gems worth $6.6 billion were exported in 2006. The United Nations imposed sanctions on the Liberian diamond trade in 2001 after then-President Charles Taylor was accused of using "blood diamonds" to fuel a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor, who went into exile in August 2003, faces war crimes charges stemming from his alleged backing of Sierra Leone's rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips. Illicit diamond trading also fueled fierce fighting in Liberia itself, where from 1989 to 2003 civil wars claimed the lives of 200,000 people - most of them civilians - and displaced half the country's 3 million people. "Mineral wealth has played a major role in the past, not in serving the needs of our people but in promoting conflict," Johnson Sirleaf said at Tuesday's ceremony. "In fact, for us and some of our neighboring countries that are resource-rich, these resources were characterized as a resource curse." The UN removed sanctions this April, citing Liberia's efforts to provide controls and tracking of diamonds. The Liberian government lifted a self-imposed trade moratorium in late July. In September the country shipped its first consignment of gems certified under the 71-nation Kimberly Process, whose members undertake to trade only fully documented diamonds. Since taking office as Africa's first elected woman leader in January 2006, Johnson Sirleaf, a US-trained economist, has pledged to rebuild her shattered country through good governance and economic reform. Earlier this month, US President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her efforts. Liberian officials hope a restored diamond trade will provide jobs in a country with an 85 percent unemployment rate. With the world market currently undergoing a downturn in rough diamond production, Israeli polishers and traders are looking to developing African states like Liberia for new supply sources, Diamond Institute Chairman Ganz foresaw joint ventures with mine owners as one possible area of activity. "We believe in the potential of Liberia," Ganz said. "Investment will only grow."