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Diamonds: Still Bloody

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Wedding season has been upon us for a couple of months, thus making it a good time to examine the latest news in conflict diamonds. This is an issue that received an enormous amount of publicity at the end of the 1990s, and again in 2006 with the release of Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond. Unfortunately, while there are nowhere near as many conflict diamonds on the market as there were a decade ago, the problems that outraged many human rights activists and discriminating consumers over the past 15 years still persist.

In 2003, a U.N. sponsored effort called the Kimberley Process sought to ensure that all diamonds entering the world market be free of blood; in other words, that the proceeds of diamond sales did not go to fund civil wars, which had devastated countries like Sierra Leone. Rebel movements would enslave innocent people, sometimes teenagers, and use the proceeds of the sales to buy weapons and kidnap more workers. This self-reinforcing process was for a long time ignored and exploited by the major diamond merchants. The problem with the Kimberley Process, as was noted at the time by human rights organizations, was that there was no independent mechanism by which to enforce it. Consumers could only go on trust.

Alas, as this excellent Wall Street Journal piece reported last month:

"A visit to Angola's diamond heartland reveals that plenty of blood still spills over those precious stones. Here in the sprawling jungle of northeast Angola, a violent economy prevails in which thousands of peasant miners eke out a living searching for diamonds with shovels and sieves. Because they lack government permits, miners and their families say they are routinely beaten and shaken down for bribes by soldiers and private security guards—and, in extreme cases, killed."

As the article notes, one problem is that the Kimberley Process concerns rebel-held territory and ignores land under government control. The current political situation in Africa--which is full of authoritarian governments--makes this all the more concerning.

The country that best exposes the gigantic holes of the Kimberley Process is, unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe:

Human Rights Watch last year reported that government soldiers massacred over 200 people in a fight to control diamond fields in the east of the country, raped local women and press-ganged peasants into mining work.

Now we learn that Robert Mugabe's government has arrested a human-rights advocate who reported to Kimberley Process monitors about abuse in the country's diamond mines. A couple of weeks ago, at a conference in Tel Aviv, the world's diamond-producing countries met to discuss whether or not to deem Zimbabwe's diamonds "conflict-free." The meeting ended in a stalemate, with a number of African countries arguing that Zimbabwe should be allowed to market the stones. Western countries opposing the sales were called, yes, imperialist. Meanwhile, Mugabe's government has threatened to sell the diamonds if certification is denied in the end, and there is almost nothing that the supposed monitors can do about it.

But what can consumers do? Well, we can stop buying diamonds as long as corrupt governments and the diamond industry refuse to put in place a process that is actually strong and enforceable. Without such a regulatory regime, conflict diamonds will continue to find a way onto the world market.