When the certification system that is supposed to stop blood diamonds put a ban on gems from the Central African Republic last year, everyone in the diamond industry knew that the ban had little chance of working. Previous bans on blood diamonds from countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe didn’t stop diamond smugglers.
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise last week when the United Nations (UN) reported that blood diamonds from the Central African Republic are filtering into the global diamond supply. According to a UN panel of experts, at least 140,000 carats worth of blood gems, valued at $24 million, have been smuggled out of the Central African Republic since May 2013. That was when the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, announced a ban on the country’s diamonds.
How much of a problem is this? Although the Ebola outbreak has been grabbing a lot of the world’s attention lately, the conflict in the Central African Republic is serious too. Since a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels overthrew the Central African Republic’s government in March 2013, the country has been plunged into chaos. Natural resources such as diamonds and gold are funding Christian and Muslim militias and helping to drive the violence. About a million people have been displaced and more than 5000 people have died, according to a new estimate.
Whenever evidence comes out that diamonds are funding violence, the diamond industry has a tendency to minimize the problem. With global rough diamond production estimated at $14 billion in 2013, the argument goes, why worry too much about $24 million in smuggled diamonds from the Central African Republic?
It’s true that the chances are low that a consumer will accidentally buy a blood diamond from the Central African Republic. Still, the flow of blood diamonds from the country creates question marks around any diamond whose supply chain path can’t be traced—which is the majority of diamonds. The fact that a diamond has received “conflict free” certification from the Kimberley Process provides no assurances either, since most blood diamonds probably get mixed into the certified supply.
But the main reason to care, we think, is that it doesn’t take a lot of money to buy weapons for the militias that are destroying lives in the Central African Republic and tearing the country apart. Lately, the conflict has been escalating, with violence erupting in the capital, Bangui. The diamond industry shouldn’t be content until there are zero diamonds tainted by civil war or violence, not to mention abuses such as child labor.
The UN agrees that the situation is urgent and recognizes that the inability of the Kimberley Process to stop blood diamonds means some other strategy is needed. Its recommendation is to directly station UN troops at diamond and gold mines, preventing the mines from falling into the hands of rebel militias.
Is the UN’s recommendation a good idea? It might be the best option, although there could be downsides too. One risk is that violence could become further inflamed, as UN troops battle militias for control of diamond and gold mines. Certain problems also tend to arise when mines become militarized, such as soldiers demanding bribes or violently cracking down on trespassers.
We hope that the destabilizing effect of blood diamonds can be overcome and that violence in the Central African Republic will ebb soon. We also hope that this conflict will serve as a wake-up call to the diamond industry, which has yet to develop a truly effective response to the problem of blood diamonds.