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Congressman targets 'blood diamonds'

Working with Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and others, Hall, an Ohio Democrat, is organizing a protest Saturday outside a Tiffany Co. store in a suburb of Washington. The groups previously demonstrated at a Cartier's in New York City and may hold other protests elsewhere.

"Americans see images of starving people, death and calamity and they turn the television off. They don't know what to do about it," Hall said. "There is something they can do about this. They don't have to buy a diamond without knowing the country of origin."

So this holiday season, Hall will be describing a Sierra Leone girl who was 2 1/2 when rebels hacked off her hand. He'll tell of the teenage rape victim left pregnant and armless in a savage campaign to punish villagers for voting in Sierra Leone's first free election.

Diamonds are a $6 billion a year industry worldwide, with Americans responsible for two thirds of all diamond purchases. Industry officials estimate that "conflict diamonds" account for about 4 percent of the world diamond trade; human rights groups say the number is closer to 15 percent.

Responding to pressure from governments, human rights groups and Hall, the World Diamond Council last summer approved measures to track diamonds from the mine to the jewelry store. The industry has promised severe penalties for dealers who break the rules.

Tiffany Co. said it does not do business with known suppliers of conflict diamonds. General Assembly is expected to take up a draft resolution calling for the creation of an international certification scheme for rough diamonds to ensure they aren't coming from rebel held mines in war zones. Already, there are national certification systems in Angola and Sierra Leone to allow those governments to continue exporting diamonds while a ban on rebel diamond exports is enforced.

Tiffany Co. said it does not do business with known suppliers of conflict diamonds, saying it is "at the forefront of efforts to eradicate the tiny percentage of illicit stones at issue."

Matthew Runci, executive director of the council, said the problem "isn't something that can be solved with a demonstration in front of a store."

Though Hall said he is not calling for a diamond boycott because it could hurt diamond producing democracies such as Australia and South Africa, Runci said those countries still could be affected.

Hall responded, "All we're going to say is, you know where your shirt comes from, where your shoes come from. Find out where the diamond comes from before you buy it."

Meanwhile, Hall continues pushing a bill that would require the Customs Service to allow into the country only diamonds that can be traced to legitimate sources something that will not be possible until a global certification system is in place.

It may seem an unusual crusade for a congressman from Dayton, Ohio, but it's not surprising for anyone who knows Hall, a former Peace Corps volunteer.

After the House Select Committee on Hunger was abolished in 1993, Hall fasted for three weeks and a day, offering a daily reminder that some Americans go hungry. His hunger strike didn't bring back the committee, so Hall formed the Congressional Hunger Center, which studies and publicizes hunger issues.

Under that banner, Hall negotiated entry into North Korea, going far into the country and reporting on a drought so severe it forced people to eat tree bark. He returned to North Korea this week and described conditions as bleak as he'd found earlier.

His efforts prompted Rep. Frank Wolf, R Va., former Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata and former Bangladesh President Hussain Muhammad Ershad to nominate Hall for the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. Wolf also nominated Hall for the 1998 prize.

A House member since 1979, Hall this year offered a resolution calling for Congress to apologize for slavery.

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