Portraits of Brad Brooks-Rubin and Susan Wheeler

Living Room Session: Diamonds and Their Troubled Realities - What's the Right Thing to Do?

alrosa angola belgium catoca conflict conflict free diamonds israel kimberley process civil society coalition kpcsc living room sessions marange palestine russia ukraine zimbabwe May 02, 2022

On the heels of a great discussion about international development at our March Living Room Session, we wanted to take a look at how that work is hindered by conflict in its myriad forms and definitions. This was a timely conversation in that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being funded in part by diamond sales from the two thirds state owned Alrosa. However, we wanted to take this opportunity to once again shine a light on some of the other communities around the world that are negatively impacted by diamond production and to discuss the bigger picture of systemic changes in the diamond industry.

Our guests for this session were Susan Wheeler and Brad Brooks-Rubin. Susan Wheeler is a jewelry designer, founder of the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference, and founder of the nonprofit, the Responsible Jewelry Transformative. Under this nonprofit, Susan works directly with the Marange Women’s Alliance. Brad Brooks-Rubin’s experience in the diamond industry is through his work at the Treasury Department’s sanctions office in the late 2000s and his work at the State Department as the Special Advisor for conflict diamonds, including in 2012 when the U.S. chaired the Kimberley Process. Brad’s current work at The Sentry is focused on the intersection of conflict and corruption, mostly in Eastern Central Africa.

(Content disclaimer: SA & violence in Marange mining region are discussed)  

Where are your diamonds coming from? Alrosa and the Russian government

The link between Alrosa diamond sales and funding for the Russian military is direct because the company is partly owned by the Russian government. It is clear that this relationship is why the US government issued sanctions, making the purchase of Russian diamonds from Alrosa illegal. This isn’t the first time there have been concerns with the company though.

Brad pointed out that because Alrosa is partly government owned and Russia’s human rights abuses did not begin with this current attack on Ukraine, those concerns or “red flags” were indeed already present beforehand. So government ownership and the implications of that are one consideration and Alrosa’s practices at their mining operations can be another consideration.

Susan pointed out that Alrosa has been acting irresponsibly at specific mine sites in Africa and she believes that they should not have been considered “responsible” actors by industry groups prior to the war on Ukraine. For example, they chose not to report a tailings pond spill into a tributary of the Congo river, while the pollution killed 12 people and made thousands ill and also killed off wildlife in the area. Alrosa also has operations in Zimbabwe working with a state owned entity, the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company. These are the types of scenarios in which jewelers should be vigilant about listening to the communities that are directly affected by the operations.

As evidenced by Alrosa’s various certifications offering responsible practice credentials, it’s clear that jewelers have to go further in their research than just certifications if they really want to make sure that a company they may do business with aligns with their values. Susan says that for her, this would mean learning what mine a diamond comes from and what the conditions are like for the people in the mining community directly.

Currently, a source that would provide this information and does not come with red flags related to environmental impacts or other negative impacts on the local community, is not widely available and that means she decided to stop using newly mined diamonds in her jewelry at all. Brad’s perspective on this topic is that the diamond industry at large is not set up to provide this traceability information but should continue to evolve.

“There is no perfect diamond or any other product that has no harm and no impact along the way. The question is, how are you monitoring what those harms have been? And how are you thinking about improving along the way and mitigating the impacts that it might have had? I think the real challenge we have in the diamond sector is that this supply chain is not set up to really allow anybody to do any of that in a meaningful way” - Brad Brooks-Rubin

There is a disconnect between the things that we can monitor (such as where diamond mining is happening generally and the events taking place there) and what we truly want to know (what path did this particular diamond take and what were its impacts along the way?) that is created by the opaqueness of the supply chain. Fixing this disconnect would take collaboration from the whole of the global supply chain and that seems like a monumental, if not impossible, task. While creating a new system may be a distant goal, Susan suggested that there are reforms we could work toward implementing now. One great example of a reform to push for is to not leave it to industry actors to define what is considered “responsible” when it comes to their own actions, but instead by organizations outside of the industry offering true third-party certification.

Diamond mining and its impact on Zimbabwe’s Marange community

Moving from a discussion of the larger system at play, to a specific example of the impacts on communities in diamond mining areas, Susan introduced us to the work she is doing to support the Marange Women's Alliance, a project within the Responsible Jewelry Transformative. The project is a grassroots movement to prevent human rights abuses by providing education, self-empowering support and by raising awareness in the international community. The RJT facilitates the organizational structure of the alliance, supports their operations fiscally, works to gather data, and manages advocacy and outreach. Susan relayed to us some of the experiences the women she has been working with in Marange are living through.

There is no real freedom of movement in Marange as there are checkpoints guarded by soldiers and police, many requiring bribes to allow passage. For folks ever caught outside of their home without an identification card, they are put in an outdoor jail for three days, often without any food. This jail is known to be a site where sexual assaults on imprisoned women have taken place.

The Marange Women’s Alliance is doing important grassroots work there helping inform the community of their constitutional rights and supporting women in the community to get their basic needs met. The Alliance has also been able to help support people at court dates, like those who were recently jailed for their peaceful protest against the Anjin mine. One other issue that Susan underscored is that even with the huge amount of wealth being garnered from the diamond fields, there is still no ambulance, for example, in all of Marange.

How to get a clear picture of the realities on the ground?

This is certainly the type of information that jewelers would not normally discover through the typical channels of due diligence, such as asking a diamond supplier where the diamond(s) on offer are from. Mining companies generally present a very positive image of their impacts in mining communities. Brad has been recently calling on companies in the jewelry industry to communicate more honestly about their due diligence processes and about their impacts. This would include very nuanced communications that reflect how the risks and consequences are constantly changing, as opposed to the very static nature of getting certified against a specific standard.

Brad said, “Honesty and transparency is about: ‘What are you doing? What's happening, what's good, what's bad, what are you trying to improve on? And where are you trying to get to?’ and showing your work.”

His point of view here is that there is no perfect standard or perfect new certification we can implement that will make our decisions for us. Instead, we can focus on continuous improvement, setting objectives for our own companies, and sharing publicly how we are moving forward toward those goals.

In response to this part of the discussion, Christina pointed out that while we are in favor of continuous improvement, there are certainly scenarios where a real line in the sand does need to be drawn: “I will, or I won’t purchase this for this reason”. While in agreement with this statement about clear lines being drawn for some instances (including grave human rights violations), Brad invited some consideration into the consequences of drawing certain lines as well. In the end, this action of establishing clear boundaries is an individual pursuit - we as jewelers and small business owners draw those lines for ourselves based on our own ethical and moral frameworks.

Raising community voices

Christina raised the point that as we continue this conversation, we still have limited direct feedback from communities that are impacted. With all of this momentum and desire for change, we should be asking ourselves what new tools or processes we can implement to bring their experiences to the forefront. As these high value materials make their way to market, the local communities are often still not seeing the benefits and this is a change we should always be working towards.

Navigating ethical complexities: cutting and polishing in Israel

At this time in the session, an attendee interjected a question, or rather a statement, drawing a parallel between the war in Ukraine led by Russia and the occupation of Palestine by Israel. The point being made by this guest was that the Israeli cutting and polishing industry creates a substantial amount of revenue for Israel and therefore helps fund that specific conflict, while the jewelry industry at large continues to call those Kimberley Process compliant diamonds “conflict-free”.

Brad took a moment to reiterate his point that where to draw a line is not always clear, especially in a situation like this where we are dealing with tax revenue rather than direct funding (as is the case with Alrosa). If we were to draw a strict line of not participating in business with any companies that contribute tax revenue to a government that then funds the occupation, we would have to include American companies as well (the U.S. government contributes billions of dollars annually to Israel). When we deal with less direct consequences such as tax revenue, things certainly get more muddied and the potential direct correlation between our purchases and their impacts become muted.

When we are dealing with a supply chain that is already so opaque and rife with issues, one of the most effective things we can do is take action in areas where we can have the most direct positive impact. Yet, it is still up to every individual jeweler or business owner to decide where the line is that they draw for themselves on this issue as well. Whether or not jewelers choose to draw a line and say that they won’t source any diamonds that are cut and polished in Israel for example. Individual choice became a segway for Christina to remind us about the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalitions’s (KPCSC) calls to action for the whole industry, especially their call to end “conflict free” marketing claims. This scenario really highlights that the definition of conflict as it currently stands is so narrow because there are many examples of conflicts that it does not cover, and it only refers to rough diamonds, not cut and polished gems.

Practical steps jewelers and small businesses can take

One aspect of the Living Room session that isn’t heard in the recordings is that sometimes there is a rather active chat happening between attendees. This was certainly one of those instances as the chat conversation was revolving around the question of what can practically be done, what steps need to happen to create change in this system?

Susan pointed out that while larger industry actors may have the most influence, if they do not call on Belgium, for example (as a hub for the middle of the diamond supply chain that is currently not taking a stand against Russian diamonds) to do the right thing and take a stand, we have to do so for ourselves. Our collective voices can be powerful. Brad then added that one practical thing we should be doing is creating the infrastructure that will be needed for the whole system to shift to a more transparent model. This should include stakeholders from across the supply chain coming together and creating this new system. Yet, the jewelry industry is currently profitable as it is and that does not invite a huge overhaul of the supply chain. There needs to be a demand for this to happen and that is something that individual jewelers can take part in.

KPCSC calls to action

To wrap up the session, Christina revisited the complete list of calls to action for the diamond and jewelry industries that was put forth last year by the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition. The KPCSC, which is a group of nonprofit organizations based almost exclusively in Africa, simply acts as an observer to the Kimberley Process. While they have no voting power over the KP, they have been trying to push for change from the industry directly.

  • Their first call to action is for the industry to abandon conflict-free marketing claims and we stand with that call.
  • The second ask, to “stop talking about diamond-affected communities without actually talking with them”, is something that we will continue to strive to improve upon. We’re grateful to Susan Wheeler for bringing us that much closer to direct conversation with the women of Marange.
  • Implementing due diligence on diamond supply chains, the third call to action, was the key area of conversation for this session and is clearly a necessary action all jewelry industry actors need to take.
  • In response to the fourth call to action, “stop representing standards created by industry associations, such as the World Diamond Council’s revised System of Warranties (SoW) Guidelines, as proof of ethical diamond origin or actual human rights due diligence”, Christina noted that one glaring flaw in that standard is that it does not hold participating companies to mandatory human rights commitments. This also calls back to Susan’s earlier point about standards that are created by industry actors to certify their own actions as responsible for not being reliable.


As Christina mentioned during the session, with these takeaways we are including a form you can fill out if you're interested in taking part in a deeper conversation about diamond industry reform. 

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