Unintended Consequences

The recent decision of Jewelers of America, Tiffany, Cartier, and others in the jewelry community to urge a ban on importation of rubies from Myanmar (Burma) brings back an interesting point-counterpoint discussion that took place last year at the Gemological Institute of America Symposium when this subject was raised.

In the panel discussion on ethics, one audience member rose to speak against the policy of the U.S. government that permits the importation of rubies mined in Myanmar and cut elsewhere. She stated that the position of the government was ethically and morally wrong and that the industry should lobby against this policy. The speaker enumerated the terrible working conditions and the oppressive actions of the military government against the people of the country and the miners in particular. When the speaker finished she received a significant round of applause.

On the other side of the room, another woman raised a number of facts in opposition to the first speaker’s point of view. She asked rhetorically if anyone in the room had been to Myanmar. No one acknowledged that they had. She continued that she had visited the country and witnessed the living conditions of the miners there. Her description of the life of the miners was not pretty. In fact, it sounded very much like the lives of alluvial miners in certain parts of Africa. At the end of her remarks, the speaker made a comment and posed a question.

The comment was: “We in the developed world cannot and should not judge standards of living by our own.” Her question was: “What would the miners do to provide for their families with the source of their income being shut off?” She, too, received a significant round of applause.

It is correct and proper for the industry to voice concern about and opposition to human rights abuses in countries where the governments are behaving as they are in Myanmar. The unintended consequence of taking a stand against purchasing product mined in Myanmar and cut elsewhere is to place at risk the very people the effort is intended to help.

Principled stands on human rights issues are indeed appropriate. However, in my view they also should reflect the physician’s directive: “First, do no harm.” If the ban is effective, the people most affected will be the miners and their families. So the question is, What can be done short of a ban?

It seems to me that the same logic the industry used in its efforts to blunt the effect of conflict diamonds and the film Blood Diamond is appropriate in this case as well. Do something positive to help those affected. A public relations gesture to take a stand against the behavior of the government of Myanmar is one thing. Fixing the problem is another. If you are unable to fix the problem, don’t make it worse.