Blood Diamonds: The War, Impoverishment and Abuse Underlying your Symbol of Love

Before being transformed into the pricey symbols of eternal love that land at premium jewellery shop windows across the globe, diamonds journey across continents and oceans. The rough stone often emerges from the African soil at fortress-like mines in the war zones of Angola or straight from the muck of a dammed-up river in Congo. Throughout the 1990’s, the globe gained greater insight into the horrendous realities that caused and funded civil wars and rebel groups, which were hiding beneath the gleam of their perfectly-cut diamonds.

A ‘blood diamond’, also called a conflict diamond, is defined by the United Nations as “any diamond that is mined in areas controlled by forces opposed to the legitimate, internationally recognized government of a country, and which is sold to fund military action against that government.” The very specific UN definition of blood diamonds was formulated during the 1990’s, when brutal civil wars were being waged in parts of western and central Africa by rebel groups based in diamond-rich areas of their countries.

Three specific conflicts—in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone—directed world attention to the destructive role of diamonds. This problem was well prevalent in other countries as well. Rough diamonds mined in rebel-controlled areas were sold directly to merchants or were smuggled into neighbouring countries, where they were merged into stocks of legitimately mined diamonds. These lots were then sold on the open market. Proceeds from diamond sales were used to buy arms and weaponry for the rebel groups. In those three countries alone, as reported by Amnesty International in 2007, an estimated 3.7 million people died in conflicts fuelled by this clear and colourless crystalline form of pure carbon.

The glittering stones had become agents of slave labour, murder, dismemberment, mass homelessness, and wholesale economic collapse. In the diamond-rich areas of these African countries, the immense prosperity under the earth brought only conflict, war, and poverty for its people. For decades the local people had fallen prey to those who wielded guns, whether it was the army, government officials or terrorist groups. The ghastly prices at which these diamonds were sold in the global markets never reached the impoverished classes of these miners. With the threat of violence and massacre by rebel groups always around the corner, they worked simply to sustain their families and save them from extreme starvation.

As the global media shifted its attention to the atrocious human right abuses and terrorism financing in the diamond industry, the players also became more cautious. Worldwide concern heightened over the entry of these gemstones into the huge consumer markets in the West, where purchasers were not able to distinguish conflict diamonds from legitimate gems. The major problem being that the origin of the stones could not be verified. Diamond traders, as a result, became worried that the growing revulsion against blood diamonds might lead to a declaration or a boycott of all the gems.

Thus, in 2003, The Kimberley Process was established to put an end to the human rights abuses resulting from rebel groups using the profits from selling the diamonds to fund their wars or coup d’états. The scheme was set up to ensure the international supply of diamonds didn’t come from warlords and rebel groups. It established a system of diamond ‘passports’ issued from the country of origin that would accompany every shipment of rough diamonds around the world. Countries that could not prove that their diamonds were conflict-free would have to be suspended from the international diamond trade, as per the declaration.

The Kimberley Process was hailed as a major step towards ending the diamond-fuelled conflict. Ian Smillie, one of the early architects of the process and an authority on conflict diamonds, estimates that only 5% to 10% of the world’s diamonds are traded illegally, at present, compared to 25% before 2003. This is indeed a huge boon for the diamond producing nations that now have a better chance of earning an income due to their natural resources.

But more than 10 years later, while the process did reduce the number of conflict diamonds on the market, it still remains riddled with loopholes, unable to stop many diamonds mined in the war zones or under other egregious circumstances from being sold in international markets. Unfair labour practices and human rights abuses don’t disqualify diamonds under the protocol, while the definition of conflict is very narrow so as to exclude many instances of what consumers would, using common sense, think of as a conflict diamond. Conflict diamonds under the Kimberley Process are defined as gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state—and only that. So when, in 2008, the Zimbabwean army seized a major diamond deposit in eastern Zimbabwe and massacred more than 200 miners, it was not considered a breach of the Kimberley Process protocols.

Even in some cases where the Kimberley Process has implemented a ban—as in the Central African Republic (CAR), where diamonds have helped fund a genocidal war that has killed thousands since 2013 — conflict diamonds are still leaking out. A UN panel of experts estimates that 140,000 carats of diamonds—with a retail value of $24 million — have been smuggled out of the country since it was suspended in May 2013. The Enough Project, an organisation dedicated to ending resource-based violence in Africa, estimated in a June report that armed groups raise $3.87 million to $5.8 million a year through the taxation of and illegal trade in diamonds. Many of those diamonds are likely being smuggled across the border to Congo, where they are given Kimberley Process certificates before being traded internationally.

Thus, despite efforts like The Kimberley Process, African nations and international diamond traders are riddled by the conflicts plaguing the industry. With ever-evolving technologies, perhaps Africa should look towards blockchain technology to help end the wars of the blood diamonds. At the beginning of this year, De Beers – which mines, trades, and markets over 30% of the world’s supply of diamonds – announced that it will create the first blockchain ledger for tracing stones from the point they are mined, right up to when they are sold to consumers.

Another problem plaguing the African diamond industry is the increased popularity of synthetic diamonds and gems. These are sometimes preferred by buyers simply because of the guarantee of their source. Synthetic diamonds are not the solution for the African miners, even if they may be for the diamond industry. The African miners currently inhabit one of the richest regions of the planet in terms of the natural resources. Better integration of the supply chain and assurance of the quality and the source of each diamond can help regain the trust of the diamond buyers around the world. Enhancing the purview of the Kimberley Process can help curb the human rights violations and exploitation, that is now controlled by government agencies. And finally, ensuring that the miners and workers reap the benefits of their labour, through their better integration with the market can lead to economic empowerment. It is for sure that the symbols of eternal love in the West can no longer represent the eternal violence and conflict in Africa. The industry has to evolve if it plans on surviving the test of time. While diamonds are forever, blood diamonds certainly should not be.


Ashima Makhija

I am pursuing Economics (Honours) from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. I spend my time solving fictional murder mysteries and avoiding real-life mysteries (seriously, when did I last open my course book?).

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