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(New York) - A new US law that bars gem dealers and jewelry retailers from importing rubies and jade from Burma is a major step in curtailing the unethical international trade in Burmese gems, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 29, 2008, President George W. Bush is expected to sign legislation unanimously approved by the US Congress earlier this month to tighten an existing ban on the trade in Burmese gems.

The international trade in Burmese gems helps finance repression and puts millions into the pockets of Burma’s abusive rulers,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “With the new law, US retailers can no longer legally profit from the trade in Burmese rubies and jade.”

“Since 2003, the US government has banned products from Burma, but a loophole permitted the purchase of Burmese-origin gems that were cut or polished in third countries such as India or Thailand. The new law eliminates this loophole for rubies and jade, by far Burma’s top-selling gem exports. Contrary to some early reports, it does not cover other precious stones or forbid the sale of Burmese-origin gems legally imported to the US under prior rules.

Gems constitute Burma’s third-most important export product, following petroleum (oil and natural gas) and agricultural products. Global gem exports from Burma in fiscal year 2007-2008 reached as high as US$647 million, according to reports citing official statistics, although Burmese data must be treated with some skepticism.

The European Union and Canada already prohibit the import of Burmese gems.

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Rings and necklaces displayed at a jewelry fair in Bangkok. International pressure to block sales of rubies and sapphires from Burma increased after the country's military rulers launched a brutal crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in 2007. © Reuters 2007

A few American retailers – notably Tiffany & Co. and Leber Jeweler Inc. – have long taken an ethical stand by refusing to buy Burmese-origin gemstones. Momentum for an industry-wide boycott grew following the August-September 2007 government crackdown in Burma against peaceful protesters. Business associations, including Jewelers of America, encouraged their members to support the voluntary boycott while also calling on the Congress to impose a full legal ban.

A congressional effort to close the US gem loophole in late 2007 was stalled over differences in versions of the legislation passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The compromise bill approved by both houses of Congress this month will go into force 60 days after President Bush signs it into law. It mandates that retailers keep records documenting the origin of rubies and jade, to prove that they are not from Burma, and that gem dealers carefully screen the rubies and jade they import. The law applies to finished jewelry, such as rings, that include rubies or jade mined in Burma, as well as imports of loose rubies or jade.

Beyond complying with the new US law on rubies and jade, Human Rights Watch said gem dealers and retailers should also carefully screen their purchases of other gems Burma is known to produce, such as sapphires and spinel, to guarantee that they do not support the unethical trade in Burmese gems.

“Burmese gemstones are tainted by gross human rights abuses,” said Ganesan. “The jewelry industry should take firm action to assure its customers – as well as law enforcement officials – that it is doing all it can to avoid buying from Burma.”

Human Rights Watch said that retailers should require their suppliers to identify the country of origin of gemstones on any invoices and to guarantee that gemstones were not mined in Burma. Retailers should also seek to verify the accuracy of their suppliers’ claims.

Human Rights Watch repeated its call on retailers to immediately halt all purchases and sales of Burmese-origin gems, including existing inventories not covered by the new law. Human Rights Watch has previously called for a boycott and international sanctions on the trade in Burmese gems.

“Jewelry stores should take all Burmese gems off their shelves,” said Ganesan. “Selling jewels that support human rights abusers doesn’t showcase luxury, only the military junta’s cruelty.”

Human Rights Watch advised consumers to ask retailers about the origin of the jewelry they sell, and to decline to purchase from retailers who are not able to offer informed answers or who are unwilling to identify in writing the country where the gemstones were mined, such as on the sales receipt.

The new gem ban forms part of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008, a bill named in honor of the US congressman and champion of human rights who passed away in February 2008. The legislation also encompasses other measures, including expanded financial sanctions and a call for the Chevron corporation to voluntarily divest from a controversial natural gas project in Burma.

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