Exclusive: U.N. set to lift Ivory Coast diamond ban, tweak arms embargo

UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN Fri Apr 25, 2014 5:19pm EDT

An employee checks diamonds at a jewelery factory in a file photo. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

An employee checks diamonds at a jewelery factory in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

UNITED NATIONS/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council is set to partially ease a decade-long arms embargo on Ivory Coast and lift a ban on diamond exports, diplomats said on Friday, despite claims by U.N. experts the measure failed to stop illicit trafficking of rough diamonds.

The West African country, emerging from a decade-long crisis that culminated in a brief war in 2011, has been pressing the Security Council to end the diamond embargo that was put in place in 2005 the wake of an initial 2002-2003 civil war.

A French-drafted resolution circulated among the 15 council members proposes lifting the diamond ban and easing the 2004 arms embargo to allow government forces to purchase light weapons without the approval of a U.N. committee. The government will still have to notify the committee of any purchases.

The council is due to adopt the resolution next week.

"There is consensus," said one council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Security Council made a similar change last year to an arms embargo on Somalia to allow the government in Mogadishu to strengthen its security forces. With the U.N. peace keeping force in Ivory Coast reducing its size, diplomats said the council also wants Abidjan to be able to bolster it forces.

Another council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lifting the diamond embargo would help wipe out the illegal trade, which he said had been bolstered by the ban.

Ivory Coast received a clean bill of health in November from the Kimberley Process, the body tasked with preventing the sale of so called "blood diamonds" from fuelling armed conflict.

The draft resolution, obtained by Reuters, states that the diamond ban would be terminated "in light of progress made towards Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) implementation and better governance of the sector."

EXPERTS CONCERNS

But the U.N. group of experts reported to the Security Council this month "that the measures and restrictions imposed by the Security Council ... still do not prevent the trafficking of Ivorian rough diamonds.

"The group furthermore notes that, in spite of having identified violations of the diamond embargo in its public reports since 2006, the Ivorian authorities have made no progress in combating the smuggling of diamonds nor taken any concrete initiatives to date," according to the report.

The U.N. experts, charged with monitoring compliance with a sanctions regime, including an arms embargo, have written to the Kimberley Process stating their concerns and inviting officials to discuss with them how best they could be addressed.

The experts reported that a senior Ivory Coast army officer is breaking the diamond embargo and there was "strong evidence" he was using the profits to support soldiers loyal to him within the army. The experts also voiced concern that diamond profits might be used to purchased weapons in violation of an arms embargo.

The draft resolution requests Ivory Coast update the council on its action plan "for diamonds, including on any enforcement activities involving illegal smuggling, development of its customs regime, and reporting of financial flows from diamonds."

In October, the experts estimated the annual value of illicit diamond trade to be between $12 million and $23 million.

Before the embargo, Ivory Coast produced about 300,000 carats of diamond a year, valued at around $25 million, according to industry experts. Ivorian authorities have said they would like to relaunch the sector to fund post-war reconstruction.

Blood diamonds were thrust into the global spotlight in the 1990s during a succession of African conflicts where their trade financed arms purchases and resulted in human rights abuses.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols.; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Andre Grenon)

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