Blood Diamonds Needn’t Be Forever

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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