Diamonds—a girl's best friend or a nation's worst enemy? The beautiful rock that often symbolizes some of life's greatest joys can come at a price of some of life's greatest evils. And despite a decent amount of media attention in reaction to blockbuster movies like “Blood Diamond,” the US remains the trade's biggest customer.
Over the last decade, the industry has assured buyers that the precious gemstones are “clean” through a system of cross-border certification called the Kimberley Process. While many believed that meant the stones they were buying were free from the dark stain of conflict that causes war and oppression in African countries, many experts disagree. According to James D. Blindenagel, the former US negotiator on conflict diamonds, today's Kimberley Process is “under siege.”
Limited to civil conflict, the certification process leaves out a plethora of some of the most parlous human rights abuses in the diamond business. In Zimbabwe, for example, there are allegations that the stones will be used to buttress an elite group of generals around President Robert G. Mugabe, and thus, fund his brutal campaign to extend his three decades in power.
Global Witness, a British advocacy group that helped establish the Kimberly Process in the first place, recently pulled out of the program in protest in December, upset with its lack of effectiveness. Although the US took over the formal leadership of the process Jan. 1, it's questionable whether or not much will change.
“Governments are not willing to broach the issue of redefining conflict diamonds,” Mr. Bindenagel told the New York Times, suggesting that new provisions should be employed to scrutinize the proceeds of diamond sales and establish whether they fuel corrupt practices punishable under U.S. Law. “The real issue is: What happens to the proceeds?” he said.
Despite the slumping economic climate, this year has displayed “record levels of consumer demand growth,” according to an annual report by De Beers. Based in South Africa, the diamond giant controls about 36 percent of global supply of rough diamonds and experienced a surge in sales last year of over 20 percent.
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Gillian A. Milovanovic, the new chairwoman of the Kimberley Process, told an audience in Cape Town last week, “We strongly believe that change must come...Today, we see diamonds emerging from conflicts that do not involve the same kind of rebel movements, but from broader contexts of conflict and we believe the Kimberly process should carefully consider how best to address this.”
However, China's increased involvement in the diamond trade may pose an extra challenge to redefining the process. Anjin, a joint Chinese-Zimbabwean mining company, recently invested about $400 million in the Marange fields, where it has stockpiled about two million carats of diamonds. As that new customer base grows, international law on the trade may become murkier.
In the meantime, the best prospective purchasers can do to ensure a guilt-free Valentine's Day this year is to go for the chocolates and roses instead. And if that isn't enough, Canadian conflict-free diamonds are probably a much better bet.
Companies like Brilliant Earth claim that their line of “responsibly-sourced jewelry” will serve as an effective tool for social change in gem communities. Outlining the flaws of the Kimberley Process as part of its broader mission statement, the company sources the majority of its diamonds from two mines in Canada's Northwest Territories in addition to “ethically-sourced” diamonds from Namibia and Botswana.