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Saying "No" to Conflict Diamonds
January 10 , 2007
With the hit Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Blood Diamond, still drawing crowds at the box office, “conflict diamonds” may have never had a higher profile in the public consciousness.
Raising their profile further among American consumers, The History Channel launched a new documentary (also called Blood Diamonds) in early January, showing viewers in graphic detail how in Africa, “rebel armies have forced tens of thousands of people to mine diamonds in brutal, dangerous conditions under the threat of death.”
The documentary chronicles the stories of individuals in countries like Sierra Leone (the setting for the DiCaprio film), where “rebels chopped off people’s hands, arms, feet, lips, and ears indiscriminately for years during a civil war financed in part by the trade of illicit diamonds.”
Rory Anderson, an expert on the illegal diamond trade with the Christian aid agency World Vision sums up the situation succinctly: “Diamonds are a $60 billion a year business, and even if only one percent of the retail market includes gems that fuel conflicts in African nations, that’s $600 million worth of cheap assault rifles and rocket launchers killing thousands of people every year.”
If consumers take that message to heart, Americans (who purchase two-thirds of the world’s diamonds) could shove “conflict diamonds” completely out of the marketplace -- though the diamond industry, predictably, has mounted a swift public relations effort to counter negative consumer reaction to the two bloody films.
They argue that such conflicts are largely in the past, and that safeguards enacted since the 1990s Sierra Leone of Blood Diamond are adequate to keep the diamond supply chain clean. Another high-profile entertainer has even come to the diamond industry’s defense, with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who owns a jewelry company) arguing that the diamond trade improves the lives of the poor in more peaceful countries like Botswana and South Africa.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations that have long called for greater scrutiny of the diamond trade have hailed Blood Diamond as a breakthrough film, while leading man DiCaprio reportedly declared diamonds off-limits for his entourage at this year’s Academy Awards.
So, which superstar is right?
The truth is they both are, somewhat.
Indeed, Sierra Leone is much more peaceful than it was in the 1990s, and some countries, including Botswana and South Africa, aren’t producing “blood diamonds.” However, watchdog organizations like Global Witness point out that the diamond trade today continues to fund armed conflict; it’s just in different countries – Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Angola.
It’s also true that 45 countries have signed onto the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (an international plan to keep conflict diamonds out of the supply chain) since it was established five years ago, and that the United States in 2003 passed the Clean Diamond Trade Act. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study in September 2006 that found insufficient enforcement for either measure in the US, noting that the US “does not periodically inspect rough diamond imports or exports” and “lacks an effective system for confirming receipt of imports.”
With conflict diamonds still in the supply chain, and without effective federal oversight, it falls to consumers and businesses to make ethical decisions when dealing in diamonds. However, when Global Witness and Amnesty International surveyed almost 250 jewelry stores across the country about the status of their diamonds, more than 100 stores refused to participate. Of the stores that did participate, only 27 percent reported adhering to a policy on conflict diamonds.
Last fall, legislation introduced to the House of Representatives called for the establishment of an administrative office within the Department of the Interior to beef up enforcement of the Clean Diamond Trade Act. The new Democratically controlled Congress has the chance to pass this or other legislation that follows the GAO recommendations to perform spot checks on diamond shipments, track receipts, conduct audits, and so on.
Meanwhile, ordinary Americans can take action.
Before buying a diamond, ask for proof of a certification policy. If the store can’t provide it, refuse the purchase, tell them why and leave the store. Consumers have the power.
Please contact Todd Larsen by email