of the new consumption boom among the elite in India
relates to the purchase of diamonds, which have emerged
as the latest status good among both the super-rich
and the aspiring middle classes. This is related in
no small measure to the blitzkrieg of advertising campaigns
to promote diamond sales in India. The multinational
company de Beers (the world’s largest diamond trader)
and other international diamond merchants, as well as
retailers, have been pushing this enthusiastically.
So much so that now this has become the latest emblem
not only of material success, but also, apparently,
of purity and commitment on the part of giver and receiver.
But of course, most things in the world today are not
what they seem, so it is probably not surprising that
the world diamond trade is substantially based on and
feeds into, the most gruesome violence and terror in
a continent (Africa) that has had more than its fair
share of tragedy. The history of diamond extraction
is known to be cruel, characterised by the ravaging
of native populations and severe exploitation of workers
in Southern Africa in the 19th century. But the more
recent trade is based on what is probably an even more
cynical exploitation and reinforcement by multinational
processing and trading companies, of vicious local conflicts
in the sub-Saharan region.
Some of these murky activities have become the focus
of international public attention due to the efforts
of a small London-based NGO, Global Witness, which has
highlighted the role played by the diamonds trade in
financing the destructive civil wars in sub-Saharan
Africa. The wars fought in that resource-rich continent
have added to the poverty and desolation of its people,
but it is important to remember that many of these wars
have really been about control over these resources,
and have also been financed by the proceeds of their
In all the civil wars that have occurred in diamond-rich
countries, the most bitterly contested areas are the
diamond fields. For rebel movements, as much as for
governments, it is only too easy to smuggle the rough
stones out of the country and sell them to dealers in
major diamond centres such as Antwerp.
Control over diamond territory has therefore determined
the resources available to the different sides, and
has often helped to determine even who finally wins
the war. But this means that such natural wealth brings
nothing for the local population, and instead provides
for instruments of destruction which further ravage
In Angola, for example, illegal diamond sales were crucial
in funding Jonas Savimbi's rebel Unita forces over the
1990s. (Of course, Unita also received some support
from Northern governments such as the US, who were eager
to destabilize the supposedly Marxist regime.) Sales
of uncut diamonds from fields seized by them in the
conflict allowed Unita to rearm even as it spoke of
peace, and eventually to wage war again.
After growing protests from human rights groups, the
UN imposed sanctions on such diamond trade in 1998.
But such sanctions were effectively useless without
the backing of the international diamond business, which
continued to use these diamonds with impunity.
The appalling tragedies enabled by illegal diamond sales
were highlighted again in Sierra Leone, where the rebel
forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) practised
a particularly vicious form of coercion of the local
population, enforcing their control by terror through
systematic amputation of the limbs of adults and children,
along with other practices.
The RUF in Sierra Leone began its devastating campaign
by first acquiring control over some important diamond
fields, and it increased its resources for further extension
of its violent activities by selling the rough stones
at a cheap rate by smuggling them through neighbouring
Liberia. (Incidentally, the profits from these diamond
sales also allowed the RUF to hire the services of expatriate
mercenary paramilitary groups such as the ironically
named "Executive Outcomes" which have been
hyperactive in the destructive conflicts of the African
Such experience allowed Global Witness and other advocacy
groups to make a strong case for insisting on corporate
action to avoid purchasing diamonds from designated
"conflict zones". Such continuous pressure
affected the diamond industry, where "image is
everything", to adopt international arrangements
aimed at reducing criticism.
Therefore an international certification scheme (known
as Kimberley Process) was negotiated by 61 governments,
civil society organisations and representatives of the
private diamond trade and launched in 2003. This requires
governments and the diamond industry to implement import/export
control regimes on rough diamonds, in order to prevent
conflict diamonds from fuelling conflicts and human
rights abuses. There is also self-regulation required
of all sectors of the diamond industry, to keep conflict
diamonds out of legitimate trade.
At the time, the scheme was hailed by a major breakthrough,
because it had apparently got the major companies involved
in diamond trading to respond to public pressure. But
now it is becoming apparent that the largest such company,
de Beers of South Africa which controls 60 per cent
of world diamond supply, has manipulated the scheme
in its own interest.
Earlier, de Beers had been buying up surplus diamonds
to ensure its stranglehold on global supply. But it
has recently been faced with increased competition and
the prospect of increased popularity of synthetic diamonds.
The company may have decided that it now makes commercial
sense for it to market itself as a "clean"
diamond company, guaranteeing "bloodless"
stones. Some analysts have also noted that if the supply
of African diamonds dries up, it might suit de Beers,
which would then be able to sell some of its own diamond
stockpile, currently valued at more than $4 billion.
In any case, a recent survey has found that the major
players in the US diamond jewellery retail sector are
not carrying out the basic steps of self-regulation
envisaged in the Kimberley Process. Also, the World
Diamond Council, which is responsible for co-ordinating
the industry’s efforts to combat conflict diamonds,
has not adequately monitored compliance with the self-regulation.
All this could perhaps have been expected – it is rare
that cynical corporations actually comply with any rules
or even "self-regulation" that touches the
bottom line of profits. And the tendency to pay lip-service
to social concerns or to whitewash their own activities
remains as strong as ever.
Continued pressure may actually bring about some positive
change in this relatively limited goal. However, the
basic tragedy of a continent whose natural wealth has
generally brought about even greater misery for its
own people because of the rapaciousness of native and
expatriate profiteers may not end so easily. It might
be worth keeping this in mind the next time we look
at those soft-focus advertisement photographs of women
wearing those gleaming stones as symbols of lasting