It’s become well-known among diamond consumers that many diamonds have histories tied to violence and human suffering. But most people looking for a diamond never receive any more information than this basic word of advice: avoid buying a “blood” or “conflict” diamond.
That advice is well-intentioned, but it’s not always enough. The truth is, many so-called “conflict free” diamonds are not actually free from bloodshed and other serious injustices including child labor, worker exploitation, and sexual violence.
How is it that reputable jewelers could be misleading customers about such serious issues? Why isn’t the diamond industry being held accountable to a higher standard? The simple answer is that the industry has done a masterful job of setting the terms of the debate – and of encouraging any discussion about blood diamonds to end before it even starts.
But if you want a more complete answer, it’s helpful to take a deeper look at what happens in jewelry stores, at the history of the blood diamond issue, and at how the diamond industry developed a marketing strategy that misleads consumers and makes real change a challenge.
The trouble with talking about “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” is that there is no universally understood definition of either term. That shouldn’t be such a problem – except that it gives jewelers the flexibility to say that they don’t sell blood diamonds without ever saying anything more specific.Many so-called
In conversations with customers, most jewelers do not volunteer detailed information about where their diamonds come from. (Indeed, few jewelers know any information, since only a small percentage of diamonds are traceable to a country of origin.) If consumers do ask, jewelers will usually provide confident assurances that they do not, and would not ever, sell a blood diamond. They may even state that their diamonds have been certified as “conflict free” by the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme.
The discussion usually ends there. It can feel uncomfortable for shoppers to push any harder for answers. Diamond shoppers also have plenty of other factors to consider when buying a diamond – most are happy to find a quality diamond at a good price.
Unfortunately, what consumers never find out is what their jeweler means by “blood diamond” or “conflict diamond.” That’s too bad, because many consumers mistakenly assume that a conflict free diamond is an ethical diamond. They would feel surprised and misled if they knew what “conflict free” doesn’t always cover – everything ranging from child labor to torture.
How did the diamond industry get to a place where it can sell diamonds mined by children and market those diamonds to the public as ethically-certified?
These problems have existed for decades – since even before diamonds became the most popular choice for engagement rings in the 1940s and going all the way back to when diamonds were first discovered in South Africa in the late 1800s.
Terrible abuses have long taken place at diamond mines run by large companies, as well as in connection with artisanal diamond mining – a form of mining in which individuals mine for diamonds using simple methods like digging pits or panning in riverbeds.
However, it was not until the late 1990s that the diamond industry began to confront a consumer backlash. Bloody civil wars were then raging in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other African countries. All of these wars had one thing in common: they were all fueled by diamonds.
Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada, two non-profit groups, took the lead in exposing the problem to the public. Rebel groups were seizing control of diamond mining regions and exchanging diamonds for money and weapons. The diamond industry was buying up these blood-stained diamonds and selling them in jewelry stores.
Press coverage soon made the terms “blood diamond” and “conflict diamond” more familiar to diamond consumers. And mounting public concern caught the attention of diamond industry executives. They were smart to realize: if consumers no longer recognized the beauty in diamonds, if all they saw was violence and hardship, then sales could plummet.
And so the diamond industry responded – just not in the most honest or effective way.
The diamond industry’s response came in the form of a new diamond certification scheme called the Kimberley Process, launched in 2003.
The Kimberley Process is composed of 80 national governments and includes active participation from the diamond industry and non-profit groups. In principle, it is supposed to evaluate conditions in diamond-producing countries and certify that the diamonds being exported are “conflict free.”
At first, advocates for a more ethical diamond industry were optimistic that the Kimberley Process could become an effective tool for change. Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada helped to found the Kimberley Process and for years worked hard to improve it from the inside. Both organizations were co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Unfortunately, the Kimberley Process has failed to live up to its initial promise. One of its most glaring problems is that it has not enacted strict enough controls to stop diamond smuggling. Even when it declines to certify diamonds from a certain country, those diamonds still wind up in the international diamond supply with false Kimberley Process paperwork.
But its most fatal flaw is its narrow focus. Under the Kimberley Process, “conflict diamonds” are defined as diamonds used by rebel groups to fund civil wars. If a diamond isn’t funding a rebel group, it isn’t a conflict diamond, according to the Kimberley Process.
What this means is that the Kimberley Process grants conflict free certification to large numbers of diamonds tainted by bloodshed, child labor, sexual violence, and other injustices—all problems that remain very much a part of diamond mining today.
Since the early 2000s, the situation on the ground in Africa has changed, mostly for the better. Civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone ended in 2002, putting a stop to fighting that took thousands of lives and left both countries devastated.
However, by any objective measure, conditions in diamond mining are not always ethical – and they are absolutely horrific in artisanal diamond mining. In Africa, close to a million people are artisanal diamond diggers. Almost all of them live in extreme poverty, earning an average take home pay of less than a dollar a day. Child labor is common and working conditions are very often dangerous and de-humanizing.
In addition, the connection between diamond mining and violence has yet to be broken. Diamonds have contributed to political instability in Côte d'Ivoire (also known as the Ivory Coast), where a bloody civil war erupted in 2011. Diamonds are also fueling rebel groups in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Diamond-related violence has spilled into new contexts as well. Some of the worst diamond-related violence today does not take place in the midst of civil wars, but rather in countries that are officially “at peace.”
In Zimbabwe, for instance, the military massacred more than 200 artisanal diamond miners in 2008, then proceeded to enslave the local population and keep the profits. In 2011, the BBC discovered that the Zimbabwean government was running torture camps for diamond miners.
Similarly, in Angola, the military has been deployed to artisanal diamond mining regions where it has been beating and killing diamond miners, engaging in the systematic rape of women and girls, and demanding a portion of miners’ profits.
Despite all these grave problems, the Kimberley Process presently grants conflict free certification to all but one country: Côte d'Ivoire. Every other country, no matter what the ethical conditions, is able to sell its diamonds with the Kimberley Process stamp of approval.
How can the Kimberley Process be doing so little to stop blood diamonds?
Many of the diamond-producing countries that belong to the Kimberley Process do not want it to raise standards. And this problem is magnified by the Kimberley Process’s broken decision-making process. All Kimberley Process decisions must be made by consensus, leaving it virtually paralyzed and unable to make hard choices.
Another issue is the one mentioned previously. The Kimberley Process defines “conflict diamonds” so narrowly – as diamonds that finance rebel groups – that it does not have a strong mandate to stop most of the bloodshed and human rights abuses tied to diamond mining.
But years and years of watching the Kimberley Process fail to make needed reforms – and continue to certify tainted diamonds as “conflict free” – have finally pushed the certification scheme to the breaking point.
The crisis is so severe that the very individuals and non-profit groups that helped found the Kimberley Process and once looked upon its establishment with pride are now unwilling to participate in it or be associated with it.
Most notably, in 2011, the non-profit group Global Witness grew so disillusioned that it announced its withdrawal from the Kimberley Process.
"Nearly nine years after the Kimberley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, nor whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes,” stated Global Witness’s founding director, calling the Kimberley Process “an accomplice to diamond laundering.”
The Kimberley Process’s willingness to certify blood diamonds as “conflict free” is disgraceful and disappointing. But just as outrageous is the way the diamond industry promotes the false notion that the Kimberley Process has nearly solved the blood diamond problem.
In 2006, shortly after the debut of the movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the group that represents the global diamond industry – World Diamond Council – launched a new web site. (The web site is available at diamondfacts.org.) One of the site’s central claims, based on a 2004 statistic, is that the diamond supply is now more than 99% conflict free – or that less than one percent of diamonds are conflict diamonds.
Using its diamondfacts.org web site as a marketing tool, the diamond industry has managed to get this statistic routinely repeated in the press and in jewelry stores worldwide. There’s only one problem: it’s not true.
A closer look at the statistics reveals just how false and deceptive it is. Diamonds from Angola and Zimbabwe, the two countries where diamond-related violence has been most extreme in recent years, make up at least 10 percent of the diamond supply or more, measured by value.
Diamonds produced by artisanal diamond miners in other countries, such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, make up about another 5 percent. We do not believe that all artisanally-mined diamonds should be banned. Artisanal miners might only suffer more. But it is also misleading to promote diamonds mined in extreme poverty or using child labor as “conflict free.”
This combined total of 15 percent does not even begin to take into account all the diamond mines around the world where labor and environmental standards are far from optimal.
So how does the diamond industry claim that the diamond supply is 99% conflict free?
As noted, the Kimberley Process almost never encounters a diamond it won’t certify as conflict free. The only diamonds that the Kimberley Process doesn’t certify are diamonds from Côte d'Ivoire, which produces about 0.2% of the world’s diamonds.
It is by counting only these banned diamonds from Côte d'Ivoire – and disregarding abuses in the rest of the diamond supply – that the diamond industry can claim that less than one percent of diamonds are conflict diamonds.
In other words, the diamond industry has taken the Kimberley Process’s failure to tackle the blood diamond problem and, astonishingly, presented that failure as a stunning success.
A decade after the creation of the Kimberley Process, the diamond industry has gotten much of what it wants.
By helping create a diamond certification scheme dedicated to stopping “conflict diamonds,” by defining that term extremely narrowly, and by promoting the notion that the conflict diamond problem has been nearly solved, the diamond industry has stemmed a lot of the public outrage that was building in the early 2000s.
Of course, the diamond industry hasn’t really solved the blood diamond problem. It has just done a good job of defining it out of existence – of shaping the terms of the conversation.
In jewelry stores, most consumers do not ask where a diamond comes from and the labor and environmental standards in place at the mine of origin. They ask whether it is conflict free. And since the Kimberley Process certifies 99.8% of diamonds as conflict free – and the rest receive false certification – the answer is always yes.
In other industries, abuses such as child labor have led to embarrassing scandals. Clothing manufacturers and electronics companies have faced tough public scrutiny for manufacturing their products in sweatshops.
But in the case of diamonds, the exclusive focus on whether a diamond is “conflict free” seems to have swept a lot of these problems under the rug.
So can anything be done? At Brilliant Earth, we think so. In fact, we think that significant change is inevitable.
That’s because even as the diamond industry has sought to counter the perception that serious ethical problems exist in the diamond supply, the idea that diamonds should be ethically-mined has only become more and more accepted.
All the focus on conflict diamonds has confused and distracted some consumers, but it’s also resulted in more overall awareness that something is wrong in the diamond industry and that ethical conditions need to improve. The diamond industry can only stall for so long before the public demands higher standards.
At Brilliant Earth, we consider it part of our mission to hasten the day when that happens. We do this by educating consumers about continuing violence and ethical abuses in the diamond trade. We also continually push the Kimberley Process and the diamond industry to take greater responsibility and be more honest with consumers.
We believe that the Kimberley Process, at minimum, needs to explain on its web site and in its communications that a “conflict free” diamond is not necessarily an ethical diamond. The diamond industry, in the very least, should stop promoting the deceptive claim that the diamond supply is 99% conflict free.
Even higher on our wish list would be for the diamond industry to devote significant resources and expertise to a solution that could make a major difference in the lives of artisanal diamond diggers: a fair trade diamond certification system. Although the major mining companies don’t decide labor and environmental standards in artisanal diamond mining, the diamond industry does buy up artisanally-mined diamonds and profit from them. It bears some of the responsibility for improving conditions.
As we continue to shape the dialogue, we believe it is also important to accomplish change directly. We give back to communities that have been harmed by the diamond trade, and we have funded pilot projects that will make fair trade diamonds a reality.
Consumers and diamond miners alike eventually will get what they all deserve: a diamond trade that is ethical, fully transparent, and beneficial to everyone involved.
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