Embarrassment of Riches: Conflict Diamond Regulation Breaks Down

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 the the 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 regime 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.

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