Are blood diamonds making a comeback?

They look pretty, don't they? It turns out that these raw diamonds were mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the midst of a rebel uprising. See more diamond pictures.
Malcolm Linton/Getty Images

In the 2006 movie "Blood Diamond," Leonardo DiCaprio plays a morally questionable diamond smuggler in war-ravaged Sierra Leone. Although the plotline is pure fiction, the movie is based on real events. In the 1990s, a rebel organization called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) spread a reign of terror across diamond mining villages in Sierra Leone.

The RUF committed brutal acts of torture, rape and murder to intimidate the citizens of Sierra Leone and take control of the country's diamond mines. Tens of thousands were killed and tens of thousands more lost limbs to the rebels. Young boys were forcibly recruited and brainwashed to work for roving death squads.

Meanwhile, some of the diamonds that were mined by slave labor in Sierra Leone were smuggled to neighboring countries and sold to international diamond traders, who either didn't know the source of the jewels or turned a blind eye to their blood-soaked origins.

Rebel armies in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola also used diamonds to fund their wars [source: PBS Online NewsHour]. In the late 1990s, an estimated 15 percent of the world's rough diamond production came from regions in conflict [source: PAC].

So-called "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds" first came to international attention in the late 1990s via outcry from human rights organizations and the media. In May 2000, several major African diamond-producing countries met in Kimberley, South Africa, to collectively address the controversy. That December, the United Nations passed a resolution supporting the creation of an international diamond certification process that would keep blood diamonds off the market.

In November 2002, a coalition of diamond-producing nations, diamond industry representatives and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) drafted the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), a framework designed to regulate the international rough diamond trade. Seventy-five countries joined the Kimberley Process -- the shortened name for the KPCS -- and vowed to set and follow standards that would prevent the illicit trade of conflict diamonds.

Seven years later, critics of the Kimberley Process question whether the KPCS regulations have had any real effect on the flow of illicit diamonds from conflict regions. Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), an NGO that helped draft the KPCS, believes that 20 percent of the world's rough diamond trade is still unregulated and unmonitored [source: PAC].

What does the KPCS require and which countries are defying its efforts? Read on to learn more about the possible return of blood diamonds.

 

How the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme Works

The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) is designed to ensure that all diamond shipments are "conflict-free." It requires all participating governments -- 48 individual countries plus the European Community (EC) -- to establish legislation and internal monitoring bodies that regulate diamond mining, importing and exporting.

The goal of the KPCS is to make the rough diamond trade more transparent. Millions of dollars in diamonds can be easily smuggled across borders and over oceans to disguise their true origins.

Every single diamond shipment from a KPCS country must be sent in a tamper-proof container along with an official Kimberley Process certificate. A member country cannot accept a diamond shipment without it. KPCS member countries also can't import diamonds from or export to non-participating countries.

Participating governments must monitor diamond production in their countries. All diamond exports and imports must pass through a government export authority that tracks statistical data on a shipment's source and destination. This statistical tracking requirement is crucial: KPCS officials can detect anomalies by analyzing import and export data from participating countries. If a country exports more diamonds than it could possibly produce, conflict diamonds could be coming in from other nations.

The regulatory body that analyzes these statistics is the Kimberley Process Working Group on Statistics (WGS). There are similar working groups for monitoring and technical guidelines. Each working group is chaired by a member country, industry coalition or NGO. The entire organization is governed by a chairman from a participating country. The chair changes hands every year. The 2009 chair is from Namibia; a chairman from Israel will take over in 2010.

As we explain what the KPCS is, we should also note what it isn't. It isn't an independent international body, but a coalition of countries working together to eradicate conflict diamonds. The KPCS itself isn't a legally binding contract between member countries; the only enforceable laws related to the trade of conflict diamonds are written and enforced internally by the countries themselves. In fact, much of the recent criticism of the KPCS concerns its inability to enforce its own policies.

Some of the framework's most vocal critics are two of the organizations who helped draft it and continue to attend each biannual meeting: Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada. These NGOs have written several scathing reports and newspaper editorials accusing KPCS leadership of failing to act against egregious violations.

In June 2009, Ian Smillie, the research coordinator for Partnership Africa Canada who helped draft the KPCS, quit his PAC post, saying, "[The Kimberley Process] is in danger of becoming irrelevant and it's letting all manner of crooks off the hook" [source: Howden].

Who is Smillie talking about? Find out on the next page.

Where Blood Diamonds are Re-emerging

Miners search for diamonds near Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Miners search for diamonds near Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Malcolm Linton/Getty Images

Critics of the Kimberley Process cite recent crises in Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Lebanon -- and the slow reaction of KPCS leadership -- as evidence of flaws in its regulatory system.

In February 2006, a British mining company bought the mining rights in Zimbabwe's Marange district. Later that year, however, the Zimbabwean government broke their contract with the mining company and evicted them from the site.

After the eviction, tens of thousands of local villagers grabbed shovels and sieves to mine the Marange site illegally [source: PAC]. They sold their diamonds to black-market dealers who smuggled them out of the country. Eventually, the Zimbabwean government, led by the President Robert Mugabe, decided that it wanted a cut of the Marange profits [source: Evans].

In 2007, the government used the military and private security forces to militarize the Marange site and guard it against illegal mining. In October 2008, things turned bloody. According to reports from hundreds of witnesses, police forces chased illegal miners into a sniper ambush with a military helicopter, which killed dozens of the unarmed men.

Since then, reports of additional helicopter attacks, mass graves and piles of bodies being dumped at local hospitals have surfaced [source: PAC]. An estimated 200 miners have been killed, while other local villagers -- including schoolchildren -- have been forced to work the mines for little or no pay [source: Evans].

In 2005, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez decided to "separate" from the Kimberley Process and restructure his nation's diamond mining industry [source: Global Witness]. In 2008, the Venezuelan government said it would suspend diamond mining entirely until it could establish new control systems designed to prevent illegal diamond production and trading [source: International Mining].

Meanwhile, NGO reports and media accounts estimate that Venezuela is still producing 200,000 carats of rough diamonds every year [source: Global Witness]. These unregulated diamonds are being smuggled to market through neighboring countries like Brazil and Guyana -- both KPCS members.

Lebanon and Guinea are the latest countries to rouse suspicion. Lebanon -- which was dropped from the KPCS in 2004 and reinstated in 2007 -- is exporting $50 million in diamonds annually, many more than it has the capacity to produce internally [source: PAC]. One explanation, proposed by the publication Diamond Intelligence Briefs, is an active diamond-laundering route between the two countries. Guinea's own government has acknowledged widespread corruption in the diamond industry [source: IRIN].

How is the KPCS addressing these alleged violations? Have the governments in charge been sanctioned or removed from the coalition? Read more on the next page.

How to Fix the Kimberley Process

Critics of the Kimberley Process say that its leadership has failed to respond adequately to the diamond smuggling and human rights crises in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and elsewhere, and that the KPCS needs real power to enforce its own regulations.

For example, the KPCS chair finally arranged a review mission to visit Zimbabwe in the summer of 2009, but only met with representatives of Robert Mugabe's government, not humanitarian groups or NGOs. KPCS officials have yet to sanction Zimbabwe, revoke its membership or issue a report of its visit.

In Venezuela, the KPCS chair and several working group chairs paid a visit to the country in 2008 -- three years after Chavez separated his country from the KPCS -- and returned with no new information. Once again, Venezuela promised to cease all diamond production, imports and exports, while PAC reports confirm that registered miners are still producing and exporting diamonds. The KPCS has promised further "engagement" with Venezuela on the issue.

Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada have issued a formal set of recommendations for both participating countries and KPCS leadership designed to give the framework real teeth:

  • The KPCS needs to reinforce its commitment to protecting human rights. Traditionally, conflict diamonds are sold to fund rebel activities. In Zimbabwe's case, the KPCS leadership didn't know if it should intervene in what was ostensibly a government military operation [source: Howden].
  • The KPCS needs to create an interim suspension process to quickly sanction governments under investigation for serious violations. Venezuela should've been suspended immediately when it didn't respond to numerous compliance requests. Zimbabwe should also be suspended while the KPCS continues its investigation into the events at Marange and elsewhere.
  • Participating governments need to take KPCS requirements seriously and increase their enforcement efforts. A study of internal KPCS documents from 2004 to 2007 found that nearly two-thirds of member countries have failed to report even one violation [source: Global Witness]. This isn't evidence of a perfectly clean system; it's a sign of negligent enforcement.
  • The KPCS must apply the same minimum accountability standards to diamond cutting and polishing centers as importing and exporting authorities.
  • The KPCS needs to beef up its overall capacity to monitor and research the illegal flow of rough diamonds worldwide.

Even the most vocal critics of the KPCS believe that its framework is essential to combating the diamond smuggling networks that fund armed conflicts in some of the world's most politically unstable regions. If it were allowed to collapse, then nothing would stand in the way of future human rights catastrophes like the horrors of Sierra Leone.

Learn more about the international diamond trade and related topics on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Evans, Ian. "UK firm bids to reclaim its rights to Zimbabwean 'blood diamond' field." The Guardian UK. October 4, 2009http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/oct/04/zimbabwe-blood-diamonds-african-consolidated-resources
  • Global Witness; Partnership Africa Canada. "Loupe Holes: Illicit Diamonds in the Kimberley Process." November 2008http://www.pacweb.org/Documents/diamonds_KP/Loupe_Holes_nov2008-eng.pdf
  • Howden, Daniel. "The Return of Blood Diamonds." The Independent. June 25, 2009http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/exclusive-the-return-of-blood-diamonds-1718027.html
  • International Mining. "Blood diamonds: Kimberley Process comes under fire." June 20, 2009http://www.im-mining.com/2009/06/20/blood-diamonds-kimberley-process-comes-under-fire/
  • IRIN. "Credibility of Kimberley Process on the line, say NGOs." June 22, 2009http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/ea1d40b4bfd24278df5765b0c209570c.htm
  • Kimberley Process. "Background"http://www.kimberleyprocess.com/background/index_en.html
  • Kimberley Process. "Kimberley Process Certification Scheme"http://www.kimberleyprocess.com/documents/basic_core_documents_en.html
  • Partnership Africa Canada. "Diamonds, Death and Destruction: A History"http://www.pacweb.org/kimberly-diamond-death-destruction-e.php
  • Partnership Africa Canada. "The Kimberley Process"http://www.pacweb.org/kimberly-how-effective-e.php
  • Partnership Africa Canada. "Zimbabwe: Massacre, Smuggling and KP Dithering." Other Facets. June 2009http://www.pacweb.org/Documents/Other-Facets/OF30-eng.pdf
  • Partnership Africa Canada. "Zimbabwe, Diamonds and the Wrong Side of History." March 2009http://www.pacweb.org/Documents/diamonds_KP/18_Zimbabwe-Diamonds_March09-Eng.pdf
  • PBS Online NewsHour. "Conflict Diamonds Receive Attention from Hollywood." December 13, 2006http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/july-dec06/diamonds_12-13.html