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Blood Diamonds in the Supply Chain

The industry must devote more resources to uncovering and stopping human rights violations.

By Hans Merket, IPIS


Diamonds do good. This is not in dispute; the industry has invested considerable resources in documenting and marketing the benefits associated with diamond mining. A recent example is the “Thank You, By the Way” campaign from the Natural Diamond Council (NDC) and the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), which showcases natural diamonds’ contribution to supporting health care, access to education, job creation, biodiversity and infrastructure across the globe.

Much less is known, however, about situations in which diamond mining does serious harm to lives and livelihoods — not because these situations are less real or important, but because fewer resources have been devoted to documenting and addressing them. Communities living in the typically impoverished and remote places where diamonds are extracted have little agency or voice to bring their grievances to the world’s attention. The abuses they face only come to light when civil society organizations — generally working in difficult circumstances with limited resources and capacity, and often at risk to their own lives — manage to document them, and even then, their findings do not necessarily reach a global audience.

The cruelties in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields have been covered elsewhere in this magazine issue. Below, we will discuss some of the other worrying cases of severe human rights abuse that have surfaced in recent years.

Conflict diamonds from the Central African Republic

The only case where the international community still recognizes the existence of “conflict diamonds” as defined by the Kimberley Process (KP) Certification Scheme is the Central African Republic (CAR). Since the outbreak of a protracted civil war in 2013, this country has been subject to a KP embargo on rough-diamond exports.

In 2015, the embargo was partially lifted, allowing exports from a limited number of compliant zones in the west of the country. These are areas where the central government has, despite considerable pressure from rebel groups, managed to maintain a degree of control over the diamond sector. In the nation’s east, various armed groups have held the upper hand and continue to exact revenues from diamond mining and trading through direct involvement, looting, extortion, illegal taxation and forced labor. They rule with a heavy hand, and human rights abuses such as torture and assault are commonplace.

Diamonds and gold are mined purely artisanally in the CAR. This provides direct employment to an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 workers. In this country, which has the lowest life expectancy on earth, at least 10% of the 4.7 million people who live there depend on artisanal mining as a vital source of income. The world has paid strikingly little attention to the impact of the conflict and the KP embargo on these communities.

While the KP is presented as a conflict-prevention mechanism, its leading preoccupation is maintaining consumer confidence through an embargo that on paper prevents the trade in conflict diamonds, but in practice just pushes this commerce underground. The situation has attracted international criminal and terrorist networks that thrive in such shrouded circumstances, and smuggling has become the norm in the CAR’s diamond trade, even in so-called KP-compliant zones. This has caused increased suffering for artisanal miners, as it pushes them into the hands of predatory criminal groups that pay drastically reduced prices for the diamonds the miners manage to extract.

In 2021, the situation further deteriorated as Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military contractor with alleged links to the Kremlin, intensified their deployment across the CAR. The mercenaries are fighting alongside government forces in a counterinsurgency campaign, with a notable focus on economically important mining areas. Combined with leaked documents revealing that Lobaye Invest, a company with reported links to Wagner, obtained rights to explore for diamonds and gold at seven sites in the CAR, the deployment has fueled suspicions that Russian elements are out to violently secure control over the CAR’s mineral wealth.

United Nations experts have accused the Russian mercenaries and CAR government troops of grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. So did a joint investigation by news station CNN and US anti-corruption group The Sentry, which found that these forces were using mass summary executions, rape, torture, looting, forced displacement and arbitrary detention to frighten locals away from lucrative mineral deposits.

The KP embargo clearly did not stop diamonds from fueling conflict, but is it at least preventing them from being traded internationally? UN and civil society monitoring groups have revealed that 80% to 95% of the CAR’s rough-diamond production — on average, around 245,000 carats per year, with a value of $35 million to $50 million — continues to be smuggled out of the country. These diamonds reportedly enter the KP-certified chain through neighboring producer countries and trading hubs, and thus continue to sell in major consumer markets like the United States.

It is striking that after eight years of KP and UN oversight, as well as enhanced industry vigilance — making this arguably the most monitored diamond market segment in the world — we know very little about who is facilitating and profiting from this conflict-diamond trade.

Since September of last year, the country has been even more opaque to the international community, as Russia has been delaying the renewal of the UN Security Council mandate for the UN Panel of Experts on the CAR. This panel, which the UN Sanctions Committee appointed in 2014, has been one of the few and most vital sources of intelligence for the KP and other observers, particularly regarding the link between diamond trafficking and conflict financing. Also, the few international NGOs that have managed to navigate the CAR’s tense and complex security situation face increased restrictions today, as Russian mercenaries are reportedly detaining and expelling foreigners who try to visit the areas where they are active.

Beyond Angolas's good news-show

In the past year, Angola’s diamond sector has regularly made the news due to its success in attracting major players like Rio Tinto and De Beers. The country has gone to great lengths to convince investors that it has shaken off its troubled past and entered an era of transparency that will enable transformative socioeconomic growth. However, this good-news show leaves little room for the lived realities of communities residing in Angola’s increasingly industrialized diamond fields.

It is not easy to get updates from these isolated communities, particularly since Angola restricts civic space and press freedom. Nonetheless, some reports seep through, and these contain reasons for serious concern and increased scrutiny.

Among them are accounts of a violent confrontation in January 2021 between community members and public security forces in Cafunfo, a diamond mining town in Angola’s Lunda Norte province. At least 13 people died in this confrontation, according to a new book by Angolan journalist and human rights defender Rafael Marquez. His research demonstrates how years of neglecting these communities, which live with hunger and severe poverty amid lucrative diamond mining operations, created the conditions for this violence to erupt.

In May, the archbishop of Saurimo — the capital of Angola’s Lunda Sul province — raised additional concerns. On the country’s Catholic radio, he bemoaned that people were living not only in misery despite the diamond wealth, but in fear because of it, as security guards at diamond mines were using deadly force. Human rights defenders working in the area are collecting gruesome testimonies, including various cases of torture. One instance led to the death of a 47-year-old man. In another instance, mine security guards allegedly shot a 25-year-old man in the head in the municipality of Cuango.

July and August saw a massive tailings leak at the Catoca mine, and the governmental and corporate response further belied the country’s portrayed transparency. Catoca is the biggest diamond deposit in Angola and the fourth-largest globally. The Angolan and Russian state diamond miners, Endiama and Alrosa, each hold a 41% stake in this mine, which produces more than 7 million carats worth $800 million per year. The purportedly toxic spill contaminated hundreds of kilometers of rivers in Angola and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a devastating impact on aquatic life and human health. In addition to a massive number of fish deaths, 12 people died due to the contamination, and thousands got sick, according to DRC authorities.

Yet despite the scale of the disaster and the high profile of the mine and its owners, the cause of the damage remains shrouded in obscurity seven months after the leak erupted. Catoca denied that any toxic material would have been released by the spill, but neither the company nor the Angolan government disclosed any test results. DRC officials have not been allowed to test the water in and around the mine to scrutinize these claims. Even more worrisome is that hardly any action has been taken to mitigate the immediate and potentially long-term damage to the hundreds of thousands of people whose main source of water and nutrition has become contaminated.

Democratic Republic of Congo: inhuman working conditions

Little is known about the circumstances of diamond mining in the DRC, the world’s fourth-largest diamond producer by volume and 11th by value. Problems are generally associated only with the largely unregulated artisanal mining sector, where there are reports of armed predation, child labor, unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. However, the country’s only operative industrial diamond miner, SACIM, is a source of serious concern as well.

SACIM is a joint venture between the DRC government and Chinese construction and mining company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction (Group) Co. (AFECC), with each holding half the shares. AFECC also has a 50% stake in Zimbabwe’s controversial Anjin diamond mine. SACIM operates a concession in the DRC province of Kasai Oriental and produced nearly 4.4 million carats in 2020, which were tendered in Antwerp, among other cities.

However, this mine not only failed to benefit the Congolese population, but seriously damaged the human rights of its workers, according to a recent study by Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW), an advocacy and research NGO with headquarters in South Africa. SARW documented how Chinese managers would beat and abuse their Congolese staff, with no one held accountable. Moreover, the report exposed serious discrimination against Congolese workers, who were allegedly assigned to separate, inferior and overcrowded dining, sanitary and sleeping arrangements. They reportedly had their salaries withheld as well, and were confined on-site for months. They also had to work 12-hour shifts without the necessary protective equipment, which is illegal and dangerous.

The neglect of their rights, health and safety became painfully clear when a worker was crushed by a machine and died; his wife reportedly received a mere $5,000 in an out-of-court settlement. These workers’ grievances led DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, during a visit to the mine in December 2021, to demand that management implement humane working conditions and augment workers’ salaries.

Criminal gangs in Venezuela and Brazil

In recent years, there have been regular reports of armed gangs running gold and diamond mines in the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazon. This is causing considerable distress and suffering among the many indigenous communities living in these rainforests; it is destroying their land, contaminating rivers, ravaging fragile ecosystems and increasing the spread of diseases. These gangs impose their rule through violence and extortion of locals, including young children, whom they recruit to work in the mines.

A Brazilian police investigation than ran from 2018 to 2020 uncovered a transnational criminal network that was gaining about $20 million per month through such practices. They made huge profits by selling illegal diamonds from the Roosevelt Indigenous reserve to diamond dealers and jewelry shops domestically in São Paulo, and abroad in countries such as France, Switzerland and Italy.

A 2020 investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provided a detailed account of the severe violence that criminal and armed groups were perpetrating in Venezuelan diamond, gold and bauxite mines. Government security forces were allegedly paid to look away or participate in the cruelties. At least 149 people, including miners and members of armed groups, died between 2016 and 2020 in the fight for control over minerals in the Orinoco Mining Arc, according to the OHCHR. This zone, where lawlessness prevails, spans 12% of the national territory; President Nicolás Maduro designated it a national strategic mining zone in 2016.

The report also exposes criminal groups’ horrific abuse of miners, including accounts of labor and sexual exploitation, human trafficking, child labor, and harsh corporal punishments. In one case, it says, a young man was shot in both hands for stealing a gram of gold, and another had his hand cut off for failing to declare a gold nugget.

More violence below the radar: Petra's Williamson Mine

The uncovering of cruelties around the Williamson diamond mine in Tanzania indicates that there are likely additional cases of severe human rights abuses in the supply chain that remain below the radar. In 2018, while doing surveys on community perceptions of nearby industrial mining operations in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria zone, Belgian NGO IPIS stumbled almost by accident upon reports of killings and assaults by the mine’s private security company.

These had remained largely unnoticed for years, despite the fact that this was not some obscure mine, but one world-renowned for its rare pink diamonds. Moreover, it belongs to Petra Diamonds, one of the world’s largest diamond miners. Petra is a member of the NDC, the industry’s main vehicle for advocating the good that diamonds do, and was a constituent of the FTSE4Good, an index of the London Stock Exchange supposedly reserved for companies that meet strict environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) criteria.

IPIS collected reports of Tanzanians who had died or suffered life-changing injuries after the mine’s security beat or shot them, either in captivity or on the run. This involved not only locals who had intentionally entered the mine in search of diamonds, but also those who knowingly or unknowingly trespassed on the mine’s large and non-demarcated concession to herd their livestock or collect drinking water or firewood.

UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) started a deeper investigation and published details of at least seven deaths and 41 brutal assaults by the mine’s security guards. RAID described shocking mistreatment of trespassers, who were stripped, stabbed, beaten with batons and even shot at close range after their capture by this private security brigade. Some were incarcerated for days in the mine’s filthy and cramped private detention center or handcuffed to hospital beds at Williamson’s medical facility, deprived of food and adequate medical treatment.

These alarming accounts led law firm Leigh Day to file a claim against Petra Diamonds in the UK high court on behalf of victims and their families, alleging human rights abuses that included sexual violence. This action induced Petra to reach out-of-court settlements with a total of 96 claimants in May and October 2021. While making no admission of liability, Petra agreed to a settlement package of over $6 million for victim compensation, community projects, and the establishment of an independent grievance mechanism. It also hired a new security company, ended contracts with implicated employees, and closed its detention center.

Setting priorities straight

Diamonds associated with such grievous human rights abuses are luckily only a small minority. They are, however, part of the global supply chain and therefore concern the industry as a whole. The Williamson case is a clear illustration of how allocating adequate resources to the problem can uncover and mitigate human rights abuses; without such resources, it can seem as if these violations do not exist.

Problematically, the latter situation is facilitated by the KP Certification Scheme — the one system on which consumer confidence is built. The scheme’s narrow scope and substandard oversight allow diamonds tainted by the above-mentioned violence to get certified as conflict-free and sell to unwitting jewelry consumers who rely on its assurance.

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