Diamonds and Blood

Jul 23rd 2008, Jayati Ghosh
Part 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 sale.

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 their existence.

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 region.)

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 love.


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