The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

“Sure I’m against war and exploitation- but don’t make me feel guilty about my diamond ring”

July 27, 2011

Wanna know a guaranteed conversation stopper- great for engagement parties or wedding receptions? Mention the politics of diamonds.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not into being a political Debbie Downer at social events. God knows I have the ammunition. Yet, in my experience women and men are more comfortable with discussions of wartime sexual violence, amputations, and children born as a result of rape than they are about clear gems.
So what gives?

This has been a question plaguing since I finished several months of field work in Sierra Leone in my late 20s- the same time that everyone around me was getting engaged and getting married. This also coincided with the peak (and, it turns out, the rapid decline) in attention to conflict/blood diamonds by human rights organizations and the media.

No one wants to be that self-righteous white girl who has just returned from the global south with lessons to impart on anyone who will listen- so I tried to reserve my rants about diamonds for my husband (bless him), my single friends (‘who wants diamonds anyway!’), or people who were already convinced that diamonds are a source of international exploitation.

To me, three main arguments against diamonds were clear and irrefutable.

  1. The obvious argument (to me, at least): many diamonds are blood diamonds or conflict diamonds. It has been shown time and time again that the money from the sales of diamonds has been used to buy arms, support rebel groups, and sustain oppressive leaders in places like Sierra Leone, Angola, and Liberia. Buying diamonds help support civil wars and continued exploitation.
  2. There is no such thing as ethical diamonds. I swear, the next time someone tells me they bought a 100% genuine conflict free diamond I will break my diamond rant silence. I’m Canadian. I know that there are diamonds that come from Canada and other parts of the world that are marketed as ethical. Here’s the Debbie Downer reality. De Beers owns over a 51% share in half of Canada’s diamond mines. This is the same cartel that was established by former colonizer Cecil Rhodes and that has been lilnked with supporting apartheid, allowing slave labor conditions, and price fixing (amongst other charges). The extra money someone pays for the ethical diamond still supports a cartel that also sells diamonds mined in conflict zones, and under conditions of exploitation and slave labor. So when someone buys an ethical diamond it is like they are buying a Lexus while those buying ‘non-ethical’ diamonds are choosing the Echo- either way, both are supporting Toyota. The ethical buyer just happen to be the high end client. Another bummer for diamond lovers is the fact that the majority of diamonds are cut and polished in India (yes even ethical diamonds); there is mounting evidence of child labor being used to do this. I know, it keeps getting worse….so it’s like buying a Lexus that was put together using child labor?…
  3. Finally. If the blood/conflict argument and the non-ethical arguments don’t work, there’s always the ‘you are just paying WAY too much money for a common stone marketed as a rare gem‘ argument. In other words- smart people are getting duped by the best ad campaign in history (more on that in another post).

So there is no shortage of arguments against diamonds. In fact, new ones seem to emerge all the time (have a look at a fantastic blog about this topic at Al Jazeera). For example, there have been recent discussions of the abuse of diamond miners in Zimbabwe. Why is Zimbabwe allowed to sell diamonds legally through the Kimberly process with thief Mugabe as a leader? Good question.

Despite all the arguments against diamonds, discussing any of them is still a social taboo of sorts. What is even more interesting has been watching- one by one- friends who were also passionate about this issue, people whom I know have worked in countries with the diamond resource curse, and friends who used to cheer ‘who needs diamonds?’ go to the dark side. That is, beam with joy and give me the ‘please don’t make me feel guilty about this’ look when they get a diamond engagement ring.

And I don’t say anything. But with recent developments in Zimbabwe, and a virtual closed door on discussions about diamonds and exploitation internationally I can’t help but send out my frustrations here and ask the questions again, that I have been asking myself for over a decade: How is it possible that gems linked to slave labor, wars, amputation, environmental destruction, and cartels continue to be the symbol of everlasting love? and Why does the personal desire for a symbol of wedding fairy tales trump any logical arguments about the reality behind diamonds? I’d love to hear your ideas and I’m going to try to tackle this question in a second blog….coming soon.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.