For decades Global Witness has exposed how diamonds and other minerals have fueled armed conflict and human rights abuses. When the industry was forced to act, it set up voluntary codes, standards and practices which are supposed to guide companies towards ethical conduct, help manage risks and promote responsible sourcing. However, we continue to see the persistent link between gemstones, violent conflict and human rights abuses and these gemstones still make their way to international markets.
Since 2015, we have documented the connections between jade mining, armed conflict and continued military control in Myanmar, exposing the rogue actors at the heart of Myanmar’s billion dollar trade. What is less well known is how the brutal Myanmar military and other armed actors also profit from gemstones, including rubies, sapphires and other coloured stones. In just the past few months, we’ve shown that it is currently impossible to source gemstones responsibly from Myanmar. Yet leading jewelry brands still source high-priced rubies and other likely conflict-affected precious stones from Myanmar and remain nevertheless fully compliant members of industry schemes.
This raises the key question: why have the existing standards and industry schemes seemingly not been able to break the connection between armed conflict, human rights abuses and gemstones?
When Global Witness left the Kimberley Process in 2011, it stated that the scheme “was unwilling to take serious action in the face of blatant breaches of the rules […and it] has become an accomplice to diamond laundering.” The reason behind the lack of action in the Kimberly Process but also related to many other industry initiatives is the simple truth that voluntary standards often run counter to companies’ aims to maximise profits. Not always, but too often these schemes are not willing to exclude members who violate their standards, instead allowing companies to burnish their reputation through association, and providing inadequate remedies for those impacted by their sourcing among other challenges. This is not to say these schemes cannot play a role in responsible sourcing; if fit-for-purpose and fully aligned with the OECD Due Diligence Guidance, which puts risk identification, mitigation and reporting at their centre.
However, a self-regulatory approach cannot work on its own. Only through strong laws, robust implementation and legitimate accountability and redress mechanisms, can we ensure that customers can buy ethical gemstones.
One such example of a law meant to address the need to regulate corporates is a new EU mandatory corporate environmental and human rights due diligence legislative proposal, part of the Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative. The proposal aims to reset the power imbalance between corporations, people and the planet by regulating the supply chains that feed into Europe’s single market.
Apart from links to armed conflict, Global Witness has documented how communities have lost their land, seen their rivers and drinking water polluted and mountains turned into wastelands by destructive mining projects, and how environmental and land rights defenders have been murdered after protesting against corporate abuses.
The supply chains that make up our globalized economy are largely invisible to consumers in wealthy countries. But they were never invisible to those living in producer countries which suffer from its harmful consequences and too often see few benefits.
Co-Founder and Board Member, Global Witness