It's a safe bet that most of those surprised with diamond jewelry over the holidays did not pause long, if at all, to consider where their new gemstones came from. "Santa's elves" is a good enough answer for most people, and even those who are aware that some diamonds have been known to come from African war zones may not have given the matter much thought this year.
"Conflict diamonds," also known as "blood diamonds," are rough stones mined at gunpoint by slaves and prisoners for the enrichment of those holding the weapons. They were a cause célèbre at the beginning of the decade, when human rights groups exposed the role of diamonds in conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola, but in recent years the issue has largely fallen off the radar of socially conscious western consumers. That's not because the situation has improved.
The sordid business of blood diamonds was believed to have ended with the adoption in 2003 of the Kimberley Process, a UN-sanctioned agreement between 75 countries that import and export diamonds, diamond industry leaders and nongovernmental organizations. Its mission is to certify that diamonds on sale at the corner jeweler did not arrive there at the expense of murdered and mutilated Africans.
When controversy was stoked anew in 2006 with the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond, the industry simply pointed to the existence of the Kimberley Process to convince moviegoers that conflict diamonds were an old problem that had already been solved.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. In theory, all countries that are signatory to the Kimberley Process agree not to import or export conflict diamonds; the origins of the diamonds are "verified" through a set of simple-sounding procedures. Producing countries export their diamonds in tamper-proof packages accompanied by a certificate guaranteeing that the stones did not come from conflict zones (this assumes that robust internal controls exist in producing countries). The Kimberley Process monitors compliance through peer reviews, statistical analysis and site visits; countries found to be in violation of the agreement can be expelled or suspended, meaning they can no longer export their diamonds to any of the agreement's member countries.
The reality is different. According to recent reports by NGOs, including Global Witness, Partnership Africa Canada and Human Rights Watch, blood diamonds are still circulating freely and smuggling remains rampant. Some of the worst countries in the diamond business, such as Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, can't account for where as many as 50 percent of the diamonds they export originate, making their status as clean gems highly questionable. Meanwhile, Cote d'Ivoire, the only country considered to be the source of "official" conflict diamonds due to rebel control of its northern diamond mines, has expanded its production since it was placed under UN sanction in 2004, meaning the rebels are finding willing markets for them somewhere.
Not only does the Kimberley Process in its present form seem powerless to stop conflict diamonds, but its policies may even be encouraging the illegal trade to flourish. "A lot of governments have been happy to use the Kimberley Process as a fig leaf of respectability, so they can say, ‘OK, look we're doing something,'" says Elly Harrowell of Global Witness, one of the NGOs that first raised the issue of conflict diamonds a decade ago. "A lot of people, especially in the public, seem to think it's case closed."