Embarrassment of Riches: Conflict Diamond Regulation Breaks Down

Michelle Chen

Men mine for diamonds in Sierra Leone. The country's diamond mines employ children as young as ten, the International Human Rights Clinic reports.

The hol­i­day sea­son is a time of mate­r­i­al plea­sures, but it’s also a time to take stock of how our social val­ues tend to be at odds with the objects we most prize.

While count­less Amer­i­can shop­pers splurge this month – prob­a­bly to delude our­selves momen­tar­i­ly that we can still afford to indulge — the social cost of one lux­u­ry item has exposed a glob­al cri­sis. The human rights group Glob­al Wit­ness has aban­doned the Kim­ber­ly Process, the inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work aimed at restrict­ing traf­fick­ing in con­flict dia­monds.” The group argues that the process, which it helped cre­ate, is bro­ken and rid­den with loop­holes.

Glob­al Wit­ness’ with­draw­al points to a prob­lem that can’t be reg­u­lat­ed away by cor­po­rate pledges. It’s not the dia­monds, but the glob­al eco­nom­ic role of the min­ing indus­tries, enslav­ing poor nations to min­er­al mono­cul­ture. Aside from fun­nel­ing mon­ey into con­flicts in coun­tries like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go, dia­monds reflect an eco­nom­ic tragedy that puts Glob­al South com­mu­ni­ties at the mer­cy of both local despots and a glob­al lust for beauty.

The catch phrase blood dia­mond” does­n’t tell the whole sto­ry of injus­tices embed­ded in the world’s mines, which sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly deval­ue the lives of men, women and chil­dren in the pur­suit of the earth’s riches.

Chil­dren have his­tor­i­cal­ly made up a large por­tion of the con­flict dia­mond work­force, under a sys­tem that makes full use of their small bod­ies. In Sier­ra Leone, accord­ing to a report by Har­vard’s Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Clin­ic, Begin­ning as ear­ly as ten years of age, child min­ers per­form back­break­ing labour under poor con­di­tions where they receive lit­tle com­pen­sa­tion for their efforts.” In addi­tion to lost access to edu­ca­tion and pover­ty, chil­dren inter­viewed for the study:

com­plained of body and headaches, worms, malar­ia and oth­er dis­ease; adult dig­gers described the dan­gers posed to child min­ers from col­laps­ing min­ing pits. These con­di­tions con­sti­tute haz­ardous work and vio­late pro­hi­bi­tions on child labour.

Since the indus­try also employs many trau­ma­tized young sur­vivors of the civ­il war, labor abus­es hin­der Sier­ra Leone’s ongo­ing strug­gle for the reha­bil­i­ta­tion and social rein­te­gra­tion of chil­dren affect­ed by armed conflict.”

The labor haz­ards are aggra­vat­ed by the preva­lence of irreg­u­lar arti­sanal” dig­gers, who mine on their own with­out over­sight and sell the goods to mid­dle­men for rel­a­tive­ly tiny amounts of mon­ey. Lack­ing for­mal labor pro­tec­tions, they’re the prospec­tors in a casi­no econ­o­my” that thrives in areas that offer no oth­er viable jobs. Dia­mond fever mires com­mu­ni­ties in a cycle of pau­per­iza­tion, envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion, and will­ful igno­rance among cor­po­ra­tions and politicians.

In the case of Zim­bab­we, a recent BBC inves­ti­ga­tion revealed that the mil­i­tary has actu­al­ly forced local adults and chil­dren into mine work, coerc­ing them through sys­tem­at­ic vio­lence, tor­ture and rape.

In its announce­ment of its with­draw­al, Glob­al Wit­ness stat­ed, Near­ly nine years after the Kim­ber­ley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most con­sumers still can­not be sure where their dia­monds come from, nor whether they are financ­ing armed vio­lence or abu­sive regimes.”

Yet con­flict dia­monds bare­ly scratch the sur­face of a mon­strous régime of extrac­tion. Activists also point­ed to oth­er indus­tries that com­mod­i­fy suf­fer­ing: log­ging oper­a­tions that threat­en to rav­age Malaysia’s forests (despite over­sight mech­a­nisms pro­mot­ed by the World Wildlife Fund); atro­cious labor abus­es, espe­cial­ly direct­ed against women, in the min­ing of pre­cious min­er­als used to pro­duce mobile phones and oth­er electronics.

Dia­monds aren’t just sym­bols of mate­r­i­al indul­gence, they’re emblems of a uni­verse of cru­el­ty, one that bur­rows deep into the poor­est places on earth and reach­es the high­est ech­e­lons of cor­po­rate pow­er. The fail­ure of vol­un­tary” reg­u­la­tion of the trade reveals injus­tice beneath the sur­face, writes Ian Smil­lie, an activist who helped devel­op the Kim­ber­ly Process:

In the end, the Kim­ber­ley Process and the efforts to reg­u­late the extrac­tion of, and trade in oth­er min­er­als in Africa is about peo­ple – the hun­dreds of thou­sands who have died as a direct result of min­er­al-fuelled wars, the mil­lions of peo­ple who have died from indi­rect results of these wars, and the many more mil­lions who might have had bet­ter lives if min­er­als had con­tributed more to devel­op­ment than to underdevelopment.

Rather than search­ing for a bet­ter dia­mond, con­sumers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and advo­cates should be search­ing for a bet­ter way to embrace the earth’s beau­ty, with­out resort­ing to the ugli­est forms of human exploitation.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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