Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2000 in the Independent / UK
How A Little Band of London Activists Forced the Diamond Trade To Confront The Blood On Its Hands
by Mary Braid and Stephen Castle
Diamonds are poised to become the new fur, and the diamond industry is facing obliteration by consumer power similar to that which destroyed the fur trade.
Last week, the $7bn-a-year (£4.1bn) global diamond industry, apparently persuaded that it was on the edge of the abyss, capitulated to campaigners' demands for fundamental changes to end the trade in diamonds, illegally mined in African war zones and then used to bankroll conflicts in which children lose their limbs and tens of thousands die.
Seldom can campaigners have achieved so much in so little time. It was Robert Fowler, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, who issued the warning of a fur-style boycott at the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp last week. But the prime mover behind the campaign has been Global Witness, a London-based environmental group, which opened for business just seven years ago, in a rented office equipped only with a computer retrieved from a skip.
Today, the organisation is still tiny, with just nine members of staff. But for the past four years its founders, Charmain Gooch, Simon Taylor and Patrick Alley, have led a campaign against the mighty diamond industry.
In that short time, Global Witness has deftly linked the trade in illicit diamonds with bloody African wars and forced into the public consciousness the uncomfortable truth that the sparkler chosen by an engaged couple as a symbol of purity and everlasting love might be funding atrocities and mass murder in the killing fields of Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola.
Global Witness has highlighted the fact that wars need to be paid for, and that in poverty-ridden but mineral-rich countries, rebels and governments fight for control of diamond fields because that can determine who wins the war. Rough stones are all too easily smuggled out of a war-torn country, and bought by unscrupulous dealers who sell them at international trading centres such as Antwerp. Not only are poor Africans robbed of their mineral wealth, but the jewels buy guns which are then turned on the population.
How did Global Witness, which not so long ago could not even raise £10 a day shaking cans outside London tube stations, persuade the previously uncooperative and notoriously secretive diamond trade to introduce an independently monitored, international sealed-bag certification system that should track gems from "the mine to finger", and thus distinguish legal from illegal stones?
At the start, Global Witness did not look destined to take on multinational companies. Butthe founders shared the conviction that environmental and human-rights issues were becoming increasingly linked. Their first campaign focused on Cambodia where timber was being traded with neighbouring Thailand to fund the notorious Khmer Rouge, and led to a border clampdown. Then the group switched its attention to the civil war in Angola, where illegal diamonds fund Jonas Savimbi's rebel Unita forces.
It is estimated that diamonds earned Unita $3.7bn between 1992-1997, allowing it to rearm while it spoke of peace, and eventually to wage war again. Mobutu Sese Seko, then President of neighbouring Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo bought Unita's stones and allowed huge consignments of arms to be smuggled through his country to Mr Savimbi.
Global Witness collected evidence to convince governments, the United Nations and the public of what was going on. And then it lobbied ferociously to, as Mr Alley put it, "make decision makers see sense". At the same time it was forging alliances with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in Angola, and cultivating powerful political sympathisers such as the Canadian ambassador Mr Fowler, who heads the UN sanctions committee on Angola. Very quickly a global campaign force capable of taking on a global industry emerged.
Ben Jackson, of Action for Southern Africa, which campaigned against Mr Savimbi from the mid-Nineties, says that after the UN finally imposed sanctions on diamonds in 1998, Global Witness highlighted their uselessness without the backing of the diamond industry and the international community.
"Unita was boasting the sanctions would make no difference because the issue was not high profile," Mr Jackson said. But Global Witness and others refused to let the matter die. Then British military intervention in Sierra Leone made "blood diamonds" headline news. There, the Revolutionary United Front rebel forces who terrorise by amputating the arms and legs of children and adult civilians are smuggling diamonds through neighbouring Liberia. Alex Yearsley, a Global Witness campaigner, said a "potent mix of paras, diamonds and people left without limbs" finally crystallised the issue.
Interestingly, Global Witness has persuaded the diamond industry to introduce changes without actually launching a mass public-awareness campaign. And the industry knows that many in the NGO alliance would be reluctant to orchestrate an all-out consumer boycott which would inevitably hurt the legitimate trade of some of Africa's poorest countries.
Ian Smillie, of Partnership Africa-Canada, admitted: "Quite frankly we were not just pleasantly surprised but startled that they moved so far so quickly." Some campaigners believe threat was enough. "I think the industry was petrified and just could not afford to take the risk," said Mr Jackson. That De Beers takes boycott threats seriously is clear from the huge sums the company is investing in developing a technological method of sourcing diamonds.
"With diamonds, image is everything," Mr Jackson said, adding that precious stones, as luxury items, share fur's vulnerability to consumer pressure. But he and others admit that while the NGO lobby has been very effective, other changes in the diamond industry have persuaded De Beers which controls 60 per cent of the world market that co-operation is in its interest.
Faced with increased competition, and the prospect of synthetic diamonds catching on, De Beers has decided to stop buying the world's surplus diamonds, as it has done since the Thirties, to control supply. It now makes commercial sense for it to market itself as a clean diamond company, guaranteeing bloodless stones. Some industry analysts say it would also suit De Beers if the supply of African diamonds dried up. That would help it sell its own $4bn dollar diamond stockpile.
However, Mr Yearsley warns that a consumer boycott is still a real threat. He recalls that not so long ago, De Beers was still buying Angolan diamonds and insisting that tracking stones was completely unworkable.
Despite the unexpected praise heaped upon the campaigners by the industry in Antwerp last week for "putting the issue in front of us so we can deal with it", less flattering attitudes are expressed in private. Mr Yearsley is told that in closed diamond circles he is known simply as "that spiky-haired Trotskyist".
Campaigners must also keep up pressure on governments to create the legal and regulatory framework necessary to make the industry's proposals work. Mr Smillie emerged rather dismayed by what he saw as poor progress during international government talks held in London on Friday, a few days after Antwerp.
Mr Yearsley suggests that if there is any slacking, the alliance could unleash its own storm troopers. Americans buy half of all the world's diamond jewellery and militant United States groups are just itching to picket the local jeweller's shop.
Rory Anderson, of the US-based group World Vision, says a network of 38,000 churches had to be persuaded not to start discouraging engaged couples from buying diamond rings. She says while she was delighted with the industry's "landmark" move, it is just the first step on a long road. "There is still a real boycott threat," she said. "I'm telling consumers they can stop the trade in blood diamonds. And we're still watching what goes on."
Copyright 2000 Independent/UK