The diamond-war link first surfaced in the early 1980s, but came to significant public notice in the summer of 1998, when the United Nations Security Council first imposed sanctions on diamond sales from the UNITA rebel group in Angola. Shortly afterwards, Global Witness, a small London-based NGO (non-government organization), took up the cause of so-called “conflict” stones. In November 1998 it published its first report on “conflict diamonds.” In November 1999, frustrated by what it saw as the industry’s slow pace in solving the problem, Global Witness began a consumer information campaign, warning of a backlash if the industry didn’t commit to a plan of action.
The value of “conflict diamonds” as a percentage of total production is small—only four percent by the industry’s estimates, and slightly higher by some other estimates. At the same time, diamonds play a very positive role in many parts of Africa, having greatly helped the economies of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. Even so, the problem of “conflict diamonds” has presented the industry with an unprecedented public relations crisis—as well as a genuine moral and humanitarian dilemma. For example, one of the rebel groups involved, the R.U.F. in Sierra Leone, uses forced amputations of civilians’ limbs to terrorize the local population, which has produced plenty of grisly footage for TV shows dramatizing the “conflict” issue.
The Global Witness consumer campaign, as well as additional pressure from the United Nations, the British government, the U.S. State Department, and a swelling list of NGOs, led to the “Kimberly Process.” The Kimberly Process—named for the city in South Africa where the first meeting was held—is an ongoing collaboration between the diamond industry, governments, and the NGO community. At its first meeting in June 2000, participants agreed that the best way to track diamonds would be an extensive, world-wide certification plan, where every rough diamond would be sold with a “certificate of origin,” and sealed in a tamper-proof container when it is imported or exported. A month later, the World Diamond Congress, at a meeting held in Antwerp, agreed to the certification plan. This led to the formation of the World Diamond Council, an industry-wide council headed by former World Federation of Diamond Bourses president Eli Izhakoff.
The industry’s endorsement of the certification plan was widely hailed, but since then, there’s been a disintegration in relations between the industry and American NGOs as well as a Congressman active on the issue, Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH). The NGOs feel the industry is taking too long to get this plan in place, and, after several disagreements about the best legislative approach to the issue, Hall and several NGOs—including Amnesty International USA and Christian humanitarian group World Vision—announced a “consumer campaign” that would include leafleting, consumer actions, and demonstrations at major retailers like Tiffany. The NGOs stress they are not calling for boycott of diamonds, since it would hurt legitimate economies that depend on diamonds, but the industry worries their actions will nevertheless hurt diamond sales.