An interview with Global Witness' Corinna Gilfillan
Hollywood may be a creature we all love to hate, but every once in a while something irrefutably worthwhile graces the silver screen. This was the case with the recent film Blood Diamond, which depicted the corrupt causes and horrific effects of Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s. The film laid out how the Revolutionary United Front rebel army used funds from the illicit sale of diamonds to maim, kill, and enslave tens of thousands of people in an attempt to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. While some critics scoffed at the film's cinematic prowess, most agreed that its heart was in the right place -- raising awareness about the horrors of blood diamonds.
While star turns by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou -- both up for Oscars this Sunday for their performances in the film -- may have drawn moviegoers to theaters for a lesson about blood diamonds, another crucial role was played by Global Witness, a British-based nonprofit that consulted for the film. A leader in exposing the role of diamonds in fueling conflict, Global Witness launched its 'Combating Conflict Diamonds' campaign in 1998 with 'A Rough Trade,' a report that traced the diamond industry's role in the Angolan civil war.
Global Witness has actively supported Blood Diamond since its release and has leveraged the film's success to raise awareness among the public about conflict diamonds. Utne.com spoke with the head of Global Witness's US branch, Corinna Gilfillan, about the movie, the continuing struggle to end the trade of blood diamonds, and what American consumers can do to help.
Did Blood Diamond accurately depict the violence in Sierra Leone and the dirty underbelly of the diamond trade?
Yes. I think generally it accurately depicted what happens, how the diamond industry works, the role of the diamond industry in those conflicts, and the fact that this is not just something that happened in Africa. This is something where there was a demand by companies operating in the West for diamonds and the policy generally was, 'Let's not ask any questions. We want to do whatever we can to get the best diamonds at whatever cost. Even if that cost means human lives.'
The movie was very violent, but I think that that had to be the case, because that's what happened in Sierra Leone and other countries. And that needed to be told -- the fact that diamonds were behind these brutal conflicts and civil wars where millions of people died.
Why do you think this issue has remained at the periphery of the American public's eye for so long?
Well, I don't think that's the case now. There's been so much media attention and people going to see the film. It really is in the mainstream -- many people know about it. When these conflicts were going on in the late 1990s it did get some attention in the United States. But it's always a challenge to keep things on the radar screen. This film has played an important role in bringing it back onto the radar screen and getting people more aware about the issue.
Generally, there's more and more awareness and concern about where products come from that we buy in the United States. There's more awareness about ethical issues and the need for consumers to be asking questions, not just buying something and not thinking about where it comes from and the implications of that.
Since 2003 the Kimberley Process has been in place to regulate the diamond industry. Can you describe how the process came to be and how it works?
The Kimberley Process is a government-run international diamond certification scheme. It only applies to rough diamonds -- diamonds before they're cut and polished. All the countries that participate in the Kimberley Process have to set up an import-export control regime to certify that diamonds are conflict free. There are about 70 governments participating in the process now -- all major diamond trading, producing, cutting, and polishing countries. So it attempts, through this import-export control regime, to keep the conflict diamonds out of the legitimate diamond trade.
But it is clear through investigations by the United Nations, by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and other entities that this agreement isn't working properly. It is still full of loopholes, and has not achieved the goal of preventing the trade of conflict diamonds. It was launched in 2003, but the UN reported late last year that there continued to be blood diamonds reaching international diamond markets.
One of the countries where there are blood diamonds is Cote d'Ivoire -- Ivory Coast. The UN found that diamonds are going out of Ivory Coast and going into Kimberley Process countries. Some Kimberley Process countries have very weak government controls, so blood diamonds are being certified as conflict-free, or Kimberley Process compliant diamonds. That's a real problem. Last year [the human rights group] Partnership Africa Canada exposed widespread fraud in Venezuela and Brazil. They've discovered massive smuggling of diamonds outside of the Kimberley Process in those countries. Recently there's also been evidence of smuggling of diamonds through Zimbabwe, of them getting into South Africa and the Congo and being certified as Kimberley Process. It's a challenge for the Kimberley Process to ensure that all government controls are strong enough to keep out conflict diamonds. We haven't gotten there yet.
The other major challenge for the Kimberley Process is the diamond industry. The industry has not delivered on its commitments to combat blood diamonds, and that is evidenced by the continued trade in blood diamonds and other kinds of smuggling going on. There are unscrupulous diamond traders and companies still buying up these diamonds and not doing enough to make sure that they're only buying from legitimate sources. There's still a demand, and the trading centers have not gotten strong enough controls. We're looking for the governments of the Kimberley Process to do much more to make sure the diamond industry is complying with the Kimberley Process.
The diamond industry has responded defensively to the film, saying that the problem has been solved or isn't as bad as the movie depicted. What is your response to that?
The diamond industry launched an aggressive public relations campaign to say that the problem is over. They've been saying that there aren't that many blood diamonds on the market so we don't really have to worry about it. I find this disingenuous and undermining to our efforts to solve this problem.
Even a very small percent of blood diamonds on the market is unacceptable. Diamonds are one of the most highly concentrated forms of wealth. They can be easily smuggled, they can be used to provide criminal networks, rebel groups, and terrorists with the funds to buy weapons and finance destructive activities. Focusing on the amount of diamonds in the marketplace entirely misses the point that we need to eliminate this problem entirely.
I think that if consumers see this movie, and see how much destruction was caused in Sierra Leone, that children were recruited to become child soldiers -- killing machines -- and that these countries are still trying to recover from these horrible wars, that everyone would agree that we don't want one blood diamond out there.
What else needs to be done to remedy the situation -- is it a matter of stricter government controls or more consciousness-raising?
There is not just one answer. The government controls clearly need to be stronger, and we're going to be advocating for the Kimberley Process to make participants do much more to regulate the industry and make sure they're complying. But consumers also have an important role to play. The diamond industry is very vulnerable to any kind of association of diamonds with conflict.
Gem diamonds have no inherent value -- their value is all symbolic. For many, diamonds are a symbol of love and purity. So the industry is vulnerable to having any connection of diamonds to conflict, blood, and corruption. Consumers, by asking questions and making it clear to jewelers that they want to be buying from a responsible jeweler who is doing everything they can to make sure they're not trading in blood diamonds, can send a very strong message to the industry.
Once the retailers hear this, they can put pressure on their own suppliers and that puts pressure up through the diamond supply chain. Consumers need to ask the right questions and do some homework to make sure they're buying from a reputable jeweler.
Does buying legitimately traded diamonds help stabilize source countries' economies or create more motivation for rebel groups to cash in on the resource?
One thing the diamond industry has focused on is the great wealth that diamonds bring to Africa. Botswana is benefiting from diamonds, but that's the exception to the rule. Most people in African countries rich in diamonds aren't benefiting from the diamonds. There are still a lot of human rights abuses, corruption, and conflicts around diamonds.
I went to the Kono diamond district in Sierra Leone -- it's just shocking. You can see that the country isn't benefiting from the diamonds. What you see is widespread poverty, barren land with gaping holes, and diggers out there trying to find diamonds. The diggers are working in dangerous conditions and many of them live on less than a dollar a day. This isn't just in Sierra Leone; it's happening in the Congo, Angola, and many other places. Clearly there's still a problem in the industry with development.
Still, I think that people should buy diamonds. And if they do, there are steps they can take to make sure that they're buying from someone who is reputable. You can't be 100 percent certain at this point, but you can get some assurances from going to a retailer and seeing if they have a good policy. That's one measure. Consumers can ask, 'What are you doing to make sure that your suppliers are taking adequate measures? Is your policy audited to make sure that it's working properly?' Questions like that will give the consumer an idea of whether a jeweler is responsible.
If consumers want more information on how to buy a diamond, what kind of questions to ask, they can look at our consumer guide. We also did a survey in 2004 of the top jewelry retailers -- who has a good policy and who doesn't. It still gives an idea of which retailers are being more responsible than others.
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