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On Human Rights Day, Linking Blood Diamonds and Human Rights

Gold Miners Labor in PitIt is fitting that today, as dignitaries gather in South Africa to mark the life of Nelson Mandela, the world is also celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The United Nations issued the declaration on December 10, 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II. “This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the declaration’s architects, at the time. She arguably has been proven right. The document, which lays out a vision for how every human being should be treated, has become the pillar of the global human rights movement. Today, December 10, is now an international holiday called “Human Rights Day.”


What does the declaration say that is relevant to the fight for a more ethical jewelry supply? Some of the declaration’s most basic provisions deal with violence. They affirm the right to life and prohibit practices like torture. The declaration also contains provisions on labor rights. It prohibits slavery, provides that workers have a right to “just and favourable” pay and working conditions, and affirms that everyone has a right to food, clothing, housing, and health care. The declaration lays out other rights too, ranging from freedom of speech and assembly to the right of individuals to an education.


These rights, regrettably, are not always upheld in connection with mining for precious metals and gems. Civil wars fueled by diamonds and gold have left millions dead. Torture has been unleashed against diamond miners in countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola. Labor conditions are so dreadful that many miners toil in slave-like conditions for less than a dollar a day. Far too many miners are children who are being denied their right to attend school. And some individuals fighting for mining reform, such as Farai Maguwu of Zimbabwe and Rafael Marques in Angola, have been threatened for exercising their free speech rights.


In other words, a quick reading of the Universal Declaration makes it clear: human rights can’t be separated from the goal of creating a more ethical metal and gem supply. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, the declaration provides almost a Magna Carta for how the jewelry industry should conduct itself.



Oddly enough, many leaders in the diamond industry don’t agree. They believe that the Kimberley Process (KP), the international diamond certification scheme, shouldn’t deal with human rights matters, but only with stopping blood diamonds. To which it must be asked: how is it possible to stop blood diamonds without combating human rights violations as well?


This issue is playing out in the context of the KP’s debate on whether to expand the “conflict diamond” definition to include all diamonds directly tainted by violence. (The only diamonds that presently qualify as “conflict diamonds” are those that finance rebel groups in civil wars.) The current KP leader, Welile Nhlapo of South Africa, has disagreed with people who “feel that there is a need to change the definition of the KP to include aspects such as human rights.” It is true that the KP must decide which human rights to prioritize and the circumstances in which it will take action.  But regardless of what definition the KP chooses, the KP was founded to save lives. It can’t claim that human rights aren’t a part of its mission.


President Jimmy Carter, at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, famously stated that “human rights is the soul of our foreign policy.” It could similarly be stated that human rights is the soul of the fight against blood diamonds.


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