Rapaport Magazine
Sierra Leone

Ethical Nightmares: Global Witness Leads NGOs on Campaign Against Artisanal Diggers

By Martin Rapaport

RAPAPORT... Global Witness (GW) has until recently played a relatively positive role, working with government and industry, developing solutions for the problems of conflict diamonds.

With the release of the “Blood Diamond” movie, GW has ceased dialogue with industry, abandoned efforts to address development diamond issues and embarked upon an aggressive, sensational and negative public campaign highlighting the evils of artisanal diamonds from West Africa. In its defense, De Beers, using the World Diamond Council (WDC) as its proxy, has mounted its own public relations (PR) countercampaign touting the benefits of De Beers diamonds from Botswana and South Africa.

By taking its advocacy message directly to the public, GW is scaring consumers away from artisanal and “generic” diamonds. De Beers and the Canadians are opportunistically positioning themselves to benefit from GW’s campaign by providing well-audited and branded “conflict-free” diamonds. Unfortunately, GW’s public advocacy campaign will force the rejection of artisanal diamonds by consumers. One million of the poorest people in the world, the artisanal diamond diggers of West Africa, are going to have less to eat. We are now facing a terrible situation where the consequences of the current GW publicity campaign are setting the stage for a major humanitarian catastrophe in West Africa.

GW’s uncompromising demands for “100 percent” conflict-free diamonds and a “comprehensive auditable system to track diamonds from mine to point of sale” set a unilateral standard that the artisanal sector in West Africa cannot meet. Demand for such perfect standards by consumers and the resultant implementation of these standards by retail jewelers will force the legitimate diamond trade to stop buying diamonds from artisanal diggers in West Africa.

The rational reaction of the diamond trade to the sensational GW campaign is to concentrate their rough and polished diamond purchases from sources that provide easy and comprehensive “mine-to-ring” tracking. Such sources are the exclusive domain of only the five largest diamond-mining companies — De Beers, ALROSA, BHP, Rio Tinto and Aber.


GW’s extensive complaints about artisanal diamonds are accurate. The Kimberley Process (KP) is not perfect and conflict diamonds from the Ivory Coast have been smuggled and sold with KP certificates. Consumers who wish to be 100 percent sure that their diamond is conflict free cannot rely on the KP certificate.

Furthermore, the KP does not apply any ethical standard to the diamonds it certifies. People can kill each other over diamonds in the Congo and unless the UN issues an embargo or KP suspends membership, the diamonds will still be exported with KP certificates. Child labor, unsafe working conditions, exploitation of workers, slavery, environmental damage, bribery, corruption, money laundering and almost any evil you can think of aside from conflict diamonds are not covered by the KP.

In fact, the situation of artisanal diggers in West Africa is terrible and GW is well within its rights to demand that consumers think long and hard before they buy diamonds from these areas. We must not blame GW for being the messenger that gives consumers the bad news.


The moral nightmare is what do we do about the bad situation? Do we shut down West Africa’s artisanal diamond sectors because they leak conflict diamonds and have severe development problems? Who has the moral authority to make such decisions?

If we shut down artisanal exports, we will put one million artisanal diggers and their families — the poorest and most fragile people on earth — at severe risk. Illicit activities will blossom as legitimate firms pull out. As the industry moves to well-audited Canadian and Botswana diamonds, the diggers may lose everything — including their one cup of rice per day.

On a trip to Sierra Leone this summer, I spoke with Mark White, head of operations for Sierra Leone’s largest development donor, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID). I asked him what would happen if we shut down Sierra Leone’s artisanal diamond sector. “Probably another war,” he responded.

I traveled upcountry to Kono, Tongo Fields and Kenama, where I spoke directly to the diggers in town hall meetings and at the digging sites. We talked, often through Creole translators, about their exploitation and I always asked them if the diamond industry should stop buying diamonds. They always answered in alarm, “No, don’t stop buying diamonds — we need to eat.”

But GW is right. The situation in the artisanal sector is terrible. And consumers have the economic right to decide what not to buy. If GW has the moral authority and public relations connections to get consumers to stop buying artisanal diamonds — why shouldn’t they do so?


Until recently, decisions about diamond boycotts were made by the UN and the KP. While these decisions were slow in coming, they were made carefully, with due process, and in a way that encouraged overall compliance with the KP. But KP does not address important issues such as child labor and exploitation. And governments have not moved fast enough for GW and other NGOs.

By taking the diamond issue to the public, GW is democratizing and downstreaming the moral decision-making process. They are taking it away from governments and giving it to the people. When, as a result of NGO advocacy, the issue reaches a tipping point, a critical mass of consumers will demand “auditable systems that track diamonds from mine to point of sale.” It won’t matter what the UN or KP says or does; consumers simply won’t buy “bad” diamonds.

GW’s direction is clear. All diamonds, artisanal diggers, and diamond companies are to be assumed bad unless they are proven good through comprehensive audits.

But what is “good” and “bad” in the context of West Africa? Can we apply Western standards to Africa? Consider something simple like child labor. If the life expectancy of a Sierra Leone male is 38, how old is a 15-year-old in Sierra Leone years? If there is no school and no food, what is a 15-year-old to do? Starve and let his family starve or work? What would you do?

Sierra Leone has the highest child mortality rate in the world (see “Sierra Leone Data Sheet,” page 30). Twenty eight percent of children die before the age of 5. The infrastructure is so bad and the people so poor that they cannot keep their children alive. If we shut down artisanal diamond purchases from Sierra Leone, more children will die.

On the other hand, GW is right. People in Cote d’Ivoire are also dying. There is fighting in the Congo. The KP does not address development issues. There is extensive environmental damage.


So how much environmental damage is the life of a child in Sierra Leone or the Congo worth? How bad does the situation have to get before we shut down artisanal purchases? How corrupt do governments have to become before we stop supporting them? Is there real danger of a regional conflict if the diamond trade stops buying diamonds from artisanal diggers? If black market diamond buyers take over, what will happen to the diggers? What will happen to the people of West Africa?

I do not have the moral authority and dare not answer these questions. But I can say that whereas in the past, these decisions were made by international government organizations, GW has now moved the ball out of their court. Decisions about complex ethical problems will now be made based on the most dramatic, sensationalist and opportunist of public relations campaigns. People in Africa will live and die based on PR.

While GW is doing a great job promoting “Western values,” and De Beers is doing a great job defending itself and its economic interests, no one is representing the artisanal diggers in these PR campaigns. Shockingly, no one is asking the people of Africa about what should or should not be done.

NGOs are so excited about the possibility of winning the public’s support that they have forgotten what this is all about — the people of Africa. The diamond industry is no better. They hand the issue off to De Beers, become defensive and do nothing to help the diggers. GW criticizes De Beers for spending money on PR campaigns, but nothing for diggers. Yet GW raises blood money on websites featuring horrible pictures of amputees, with all the money going to various advocacy efforts and none of it to the diggers. The rule of the day is everything for advocacy and PR, nothing for development.

It is hard to criticize GW and other NGOs because they are devoted people trying to do what they think is right. Furthermore, I do not want to be seen as attacking NGOs because they are attacking the diamond trade. What is happening and not happening in the diamond trade makes me sick to my stomach and I do not in any way wish to criticize NGOs for taking on the diamond industry. The industry can and should do more.

But what should we do when the good NGOs with their good intentions create consequences that are fatal? Dare we speak out and invite the wrath of the self-righteous? It appears to me that, as usual, the big losers in the great diamond PR contest will be the poorest people in Africa. Everyone is so busy pushing their agenda that they have lost sight of the people that we should be trying to help. What will happen to the people of West Africa? Does anyone really care?


GW’s insistence on high-level “mine-to-ring” monitoring unilaterally sets standards above and beyond KP requirements and plays into the hands of De Beers and the other big mining companies. The big firms are the only ones capable of effective “mine-to-ring” monitoring operations and they are developing downstream branding initiatives that incorporate GW-type monitoring and auditing. Their branding efforts are designed to increase prices for their diamonds by destroying small competitors in the polished markets who are unable to brand/audit their products; forcing large retailers to sell their audited brands or risk losing market share; charging retailers premium prices for brands and thereby pulling profits from the retail sector into the mining sector and eliminating market competition from problematic alluvial diamond sources who may sell diamonds below the mining companies’ “list” prices.

GW and its cohort NGOs are perfectly aligned with big mining company efforts to transition the diamond industry from a free, competitive marketplace to a highly controlled, manipulated market. As the large firms control the monitoring, auditing and branding process, they will destroy the livelihood of thousands of small people all over the world, especially in India, where the vast majority of the world’s diamonds are cut. Big firms will sell their branded products to big customers who will tightly control distribution and access to diamonds.

GW is literally driving customers to De Beers and Canadian diamonds and away from artisanal diggers with their shockingly provocative “Blood Diamond” campaign. The GW campaign will kill off generic diamonds so that the big miners can bring in their brands and get rid of the little guys.

It is truly amazing that the only thing that NGOs and big diamond mining companies can agree on is implementation of a system that will deny the poorest people on earth the ability to sell their diamonds. All of this being done, of course, in the name of trying to help the people they are about to hurt.

For a worldwide December 12 broadcast, CNN was invited to Botswana as part of a De Beers PR campaign “to create a firewall against negative publicity” and “to make clear that [Botswana diamonds] are a cut above any bad blood that might come from ‘Blood Diamonds.’” The program then contrasts the clean beneficial situation in Botswana with the horrific exploitive situation in the Congo. When asked, “So, can a diamond ever be guilt free?” Donald Palmieri of the Gem Certification and Assurance Lab (GCAL) laboratory explained that there is a solution and promoted his Source Veritas De Beers sightholder auditing system. He also specifically cited the De Beers Forevermark. While it is natural for firms to promote themselves, there is no denying that the message being supported by De Beers and sent by CNN was that De Beers/Botswana diamonds are good and Congo diamonds are bad.


The well-designed parody website www.realdiamondfacts.org, established by the NGO Diamonds for Africa, provides horrifying pictures of Sierra Leone amputees as it asks consumers to “make a difference” and “buy an ethical diamond from Canada.” The site explains, as per the new GW standard, that “Canadian diamonds are currently the only diamonds that can be tracked from their point of origin.”

While parodying the industry’s website is legitimate speech, these people are saying that the way to help Sierra Leone is to buy Canadian diamonds instead of Sierra Leone diamonds. They take a picture of a Sierra Leone amputee and then use it to convince people not to buy Sierra Leone diamonds. And, worst of all, they say that this is the ethical thing to do. My G-D, what is going on here?

We must recognize that NGOs, with the best of intentions, are capable of being opportunistic, exploitative and unethical to the highest degree. Shockingly, the same website links to “a few organizations that you can donate to,” including GW, promoters of the “auditable tracking system” and, therefore, Canadian diamonds.

Does GW think it is ethical to use pictures of African amputees to promote Canadian diamonds and raise funds for GW advocacy work? Why has GW not publicly dissociated itself from this website?

The website www.BrilliantEarth.com offers “Luxury with a Conscience, The highest-quality Canadian conflict-free diamond jewelry” with a “Give back to African communities” program claiming “5 percent of our profits are donated to the Diamonds For Africa Fund.”

Also available on the website is a USA Today article “Choose Gems that are legit. Brilliant Earth gets its diamonds from Canada, where diamond certification goes beyond the standards of the Kimberley Process to make sure diamonds are not obtained through child labor or worker exploitation.”

Another of the website’s “media mentions” quotes the San Francisco Chronicle: “Gerstein [co-creator of Brilliant Earth] said she shares Global Witness’ goal of improving wages, working conditions and environmental practices in the African mines. If enough consumers choose Canadian diamonds, she said, African producers will feel compelled to set up similar tracking systems that will encourage responsible mining practices.”

While the 5-percent-of-profits charity gimmick is outrageous — who wouldn’t give 5 percent of profits to get customers — the most outrageous thing is that many of these people are well-intentioned. By moving the conflict diamond agenda into the public PR sphere, GW has created an open hunting season for African artisanal diggers. They are an easy PR target. They can be used to promote anyone’s better “more ethical” product and they can’t defend themselves from “ethical” NGOs.

While the Rapaport Group supports monitoring as a way of adding value to diamonds and strongly advocates the establishment of fair trade diamonds and jewelry with extreme monitoring we believe that it is unethical to knock the legitimate product of others. Fair trade and other monitored products should compete in the marketplace without denigrating other products. To use images of Sierra Leone amputees to promote Canadian diamonds ahead of Sierra Leone diamonds crosses all red lines.


When confronted with the headline of this story, I am sure that GW will emphatically claim that they are not calling for a boycott. And, in fact, GW and other NGOs have made statements saying that they are not calling for a boycott.

Unfortunately, GW and others are not telling the truth. They are talking out of both sides of their mouth. They say that they are not calling for a boycott, but they have created a “Blood Diamond” campaign that will force the legitimate diamond trade to stop buying artisanal diamonds. GW has established unilateral standards in a public campaign that mingles conflict, illicit and exploitation issues in a way that will make it impossible for consumers to buy artisanal diamonds without extensive monitoring. Such monitoring is impossible to accomplish in the near future. Let there be no misunderstanding: GW is leading a pack of NGOs that is chasing the diamond industry away from West African artisanal diamonds.

Perhaps, GW is right and we should not buy artisanal diamonds that are not monitored from mine to ring. I have no problem following that lead. I do, however, have an ethical problem with NGOs that refuse to take responsibility for their actions, particularly when such actions may lead to human suffering and the loss of life.

I congratulate GW for seizing the moral initiative and taking it to the public. And I hold them responsible for that action. And so I ask GW straight and simple: “Given the fact that extensive monitoring of artisanal diamonds is not currently available in West Africa and yet there are compelling humanitarian issues, should the diamond industry continue to buy artisanal diamonds from Sierra Leone and West Africa based solely on KP certificates? Yes or no?”

I challenge GW to publicly state if it is “okay” or “not okay” for consumers to buy artisanal diamonds from West Africa based on KP certification.


Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2007. To subscribe click here.

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disingenuous and overblown article
Apr 24, 2007 10:06AM    By concerned consumer
This article vastly overstates the impact of the film "Blood Diamond" . For what it is worth, I am currently in the process of shopping for a diamond engagement ring, and most retailers are telling me that I am only the first or second customer they have ever had that has even mentioned conflict diamonds. The movie has seemingly brought the issue to the attention of a vanishing fraction of consumers who had never heard mention of the issue before, and perhaps never after.

The article sets up the bogey man of shutting down artisanal exports, which is clearly neither the intended nor actual effect of the GW campaign. There isn't a fragment of evidence for this "nightmare" scenario: that the GW campaign "will force the legitimate diamond trade to stop buying artisanal diamonds"; that the campaign will "make it impossible for consumers to buy artisanal diamonds without extensive monitoring"; that "such monitoring is impossible to accomplish in the near future"; "a critical mass of consumers will demand auditable systems that track diamonds from mine to point of sale", nor that the campaign is producing any hardship for artisanal diamond diggers.

The stated goal of GW and other NGOs is to pressure diamond suppliers, traders, and retailers to source their diamonds in a responsible and transparent manner. It is scandalous that almost none of the retailers I have encountered can even tell me what country their diamonds come from, let alone what mine. How hard would it be to implement even this minimal standard of tracking? The attitude of this article seems that information should be withheld from the public so that governments can do as they please without oversight. It is far better to have full transparency and monitoring so that consumers can make educated choices. I have found the survey of SoW compliance conducted by GW/AI to be very helpful in my shopping decisisons. They are doing far more good than harm, from my point of view, and are contributing far more to addressing the problem of conflict diamonds than the diamond industry.
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