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?

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.

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?

“You have to ask yourself is there another market, and my experience is that there is always another market for minerals,” says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who has studied the minerals market in conflict zones in central Africa. “One of the flaws of the Kimberley Process is that it was designed around conflict, not around inhumane conditions or other more ambiguous human rights abuses such as child labor or forced labor.”

One of the positive effects of the Kimberley Process, Ms. Seay adds, is that it did manage to raise awareness among consumers about where diamonds often come from, and how to avoid funding conflicts with one’s spending habits. “If Rapaport can be successful in raising awareness about Zimbabwe diamonds, then it could be effective. And it could push the Kimberley Process to look more broadly at other human rights abuses.”

Looking east

To be sure, America is one of the largest markets for diamonds – even in tight economic times such as these. But there are other emerging markets, many of them in Asia, which are experiencing rapid economic growth. Last week, China replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy after the US, and it stands ready to overtake the US in the coming decade.

“I think there are a lot of other buyers for diamonds out there, such as India, which are quite keen to buy diamonds,” says Raymond Louw, editor of the Southern Africa Report in Johannesburg. “I think this is a going to act as a token rather than a debilitating measure for the regime of [Zimbabwean President] Robert Mugabe.”

For its part, Zimbabwe’s government pointed out that its sale of 900,000 diamonds last week – the first since sanctions were lifted by the Kimberley Process last year – was completely legal and above board, and said that a ban on Zimbabwe diamonds would have little or no effect.

"If [the Rapaport group] mobilize other nations to ban our gems, then we will be left with no other options other than embarking on the Look East Policy, which over the past 10 years kept the country moving despite illegal sanctions,” says Zimbabwe's Minister of Mines, Obert Mpofu in a Monitor interview. "We will sell our stones to countries where they are welcome. We have countries like China, Malaysia, Russia, India and other Asian countries where we can market our diamonds."

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