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Zimbabwe diamond ban: Will it work?

The US-based Rapaport Diamond Trading Network announced a Zimbabwe diamond ban Monday, but will it have the desired effect of preventing child labor and forced labor?

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / August 17, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa

First animal rights activists went after the fur industry. Then Hollywood went after “blood diamonds” that African armies and rebel groups sold to fund their war efforts. Now a significant part of the diamond industry itself – the US-based Rapaport Diamond Trading Network – wants to ban the sale of diamonds that come from certain notorious mines in the turbulent nation of Zimbabwe.

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Rapaport is one of the largest buyers of diamonds in the US.

Do any of these campaigns actually work? The answer is that some do, and activists are hoping that the action taken by the 10,000-member Rapaport group will serve to raise awareness about human rights abuses and the prevalence of child labor and forced labor in Zimbabwe, and perhaps even change the way the world monitors the diamond mining industry.

“I think the significance of this is that the US diamond market is one of the biggest in the world, and when they say they will only purchase a diamond when they are sure that diamond is not from the Marange diamond fields in Zimbabwe, they are taking a moral stand,” says Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher on Zimbabwe for Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg.

STORY: Zimbabwe slams 'lunatic group' for banning its diamonds

Such a ban could help to force the international body that monitors the diamond trade, the so-called Kimberley Process, to ensure that diamonds are not only free of the taint of conflict, but also of the taint of more broader human rights abuses, Ms. Kasambala says. “This shows the Kimberley Process that it need to do much more, to press the government to be accountable for its behavior.”

Diamond industry's image problem

That the diamond industry is taking steps to keep politically-tainted stones out of circulation is hardly a surprise. The market is glutted with diamonds, many of them coming out of Russia and other markets that were once off limits, and movies like the action thriller “Blood Diamond” and the real-life trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for human rights crimes do nothing to improve the image of a stone that was once considered to be the ultimate symbol of love.

Yet the very same global diamond industry watchdog created to clean up the diamond trade in conflict zones (the Kimberley Process) has given Zimbabwe’s diamonds a clean bill of health, sending a mixed signal to consumers looking for a guilt-free purchase. And if US diamond buyers can do without a few hundred thousand Zimbabwean stones, then it is also true that Zimbabwe sellers can do without 10,000 US-based diamond traders. Which again raises the question: will this boycott work?