Diamonds are supposed to be symbols of love, commitment, and joyful new beginnings. But for many people in diamond-rich countries, these sparkling stones are more a curse than a blessing. Too often, the world’s diamond mines produce not only diamonds – but also civil wars, violence, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and unspeakable human suffering.
Not long ago, the public started to become aware that large numbers of diamonds are mined in violent and inhumane settings. Consumers are now demanding, with ever greater urgency, that their diamonds be untouched by bloodshed and human rights abuses. So far, however, the diamond industry’s response has been woefully inadequate. Diamonds with violent histories are still being mined and allowed to enter the diamond supply, where they become indistinguishable from other gems. Violence and injustice remain an everyday aspect of diamond mining.
Fueling Civil Wars
In just the past two decades, seven African countries have endured brutal civil conflicts fueled by diamonds: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Diamonds intensify civil wars by financing militaries and rebel militias. Rival groups also fight with each other to control diamond-rich territory. The tragic result is bloodshed, loss of life, and shocking human rights abuses – from rape to the use of child soldiers.
Diamonds that fuel civil wars are often called “blood” or “conflict” diamonds. Although many diamond-fueled wars have now ended, conflict diamonds remain a serious problem. In 2013, a civil war erupted in the Central African Republic, with both sides fighting over the country’s diamond resources. Thousands of people have died and more than a million have been displaced. In addition, past wars fueled by diamonds have taken about 3.7 million lives. Millions of people are still dealing with the consequences of these wars: friends and family members lost, lives shattered, and physical and emotional scars that will last generations.
Violence by Governments
Diamond mining is plagued by shocking violence, from killings to sexual violence to torture. Often, rebel groups are responsible for this violence. But governments and mining companies also commit atrocities in Africa’s diamond fields, frequently in countries that are not at war. At Brilliant Earth, we believe it is important to end all violence related to diamond mining, regardless of the circumstances.
The diamond industry’s attempt to fight blood diamonds led to the establishment of the Kimberley Process, an international diamond certification scheme, in 2003. Unfortunately, the Kimberley Process only places a ban on diamonds that finance rebel militias in war-torn countries. When diamond miners are killed or physically harmed by their own governments, or by security guards working for mining companies, the Kimberley Process rarely takes action. Instead, it certifies these diamonds as conflict-free and allows them to be shipped to consumers worldwide.
Even after killings, torture, and outrageous human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, Zimbabwe has been welcomed into the community of diamond producing nations.
In 2008, the Zimbabwean army seized the valuable Marange diamond deposit in eastern Zimbabwe, massacring more than 200 diamond miners who stood in the way. Soldiers then enslaved local adults and children in the diamond fields, beating and torturing those who disobeyed. An estimated $2 billion in diamond wealth disappeared, mostly into the hands of military leaders and allies of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s dictator.
The army now has put private companies in charge of mining. But community members are still being beaten and killed, relocated families live in poverty, corruption continues, and nobody has been held accountable for past crimes. Meanwhile, the Kimberley Process has decided that these circumstances are acceptable. Although it banned Zimbabwean diamonds in 2009, it lifted the ban in 2011 despite revelations that the army was running torture camps for diamond miners.
More than ten years after the end of a brutal diamond-funded civil war, Angola is now a member of the Kimberley Process and the world’s fourth largest diamond exporter. But a flourishing diamond trade has not made Angola a more responsible diamond producer. Angola’s diamond fields are once again the scene of horrific violence.
In recent years, diamond miners from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo have been streaming into northeast Angola to mine for diamonds. Most miners cross the border illegally and do not have legal permission to mine. Angolan soldiers, along with security guards for mining companies, have been brutally cracking down on these foreign migrants as well as on local Angolan miners. Soldiers routinely demand bribes, beating and killing miners who do not cooperate. They also have been rounding up tens of thousands of migrants each year and expelling them across the border, raping many of the women first.
Angola’s dictatorship has refused to acknowledge these problems. Instead, it has filed criminal defamation charges against a journalist who documented more than 100 murders and the torture of more than 500 people in two diamond mining towns. The Kimberley Process has ignored the issue too. Rather than expel Angola, the Kimberley Process has picked Angola to serve as its leader in 2015.
For nearly a decade, diamonds helped keep Côte d’Ivoire a divided nation. In 2004, a violent civil war in Côte d’Ivoire reached a stalemate. Rebels controlled the diamond-rich north while the government controlled the south. To prevent diamonds from funding the conflict, the Kimberley Process and the United Nations placed a ban on the export of Côte d’Ivoire’s diamonds in 2005.
Rebels, however, did not abide by the ban. Every year, rebels smuggled about $20 million worth of diamonds into neighboring countries, exchanging these diamonds for weapons and strengthening their grip on the north. In 2010, a disputed presidential election led to a constitutional crisis. Rebel soldiers swept southward in support of Alassane Ouattara, their preferred candidate and the rightful election winner. In the months of fighting that followed, at least 3,000 people were killed and atrocities were committed by both sides.
Ouattara took office in 2012 and the violence now appears to be over. The United Nations lifted its ban on Côte d’Ivoire’s diamonds in 2014. For the first time in years, the country has a chance to use its diamond wealth for peaceful economic development. But memories of war, and the destructive power of diamonds, will not soon be forgotten.