The Human Rights of Bling

In the wake of Valentine’s Day, some of our dear Protocol readers may currently be wearing a new necklace, bracelet, or ring from a loved one (or secret admirer). Gifting jewellery is extremely popular, with Americans spending more on jewellery than on any other gift for Valentine’s and Mother’s Day in 2017, purchasing nearly $10 billion worth of jewellery over the two holidays combined. If your gift-giver felt especially flash with their cash, some of these gifts may have even contained gold or diamonds. But while these might look like great accessories, the human cost of jewellery is less than sparkling. In the run up to Valentine’s Day 2018, Human Rights Watch released a report on “The Hidden Cost of Jewellery”, describing the conditions under which precious minerals and metals are mined. The report focused on the practices of 13 major jewellery brands and their extensive supply chains, including Boodles, Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora and Rolex. While these 13 companies recognise their human rights responsibilities, many of them fall short of complying with international standards.

According to the report, approximately one million children globally are made to work in small-scale mining, in direct violation of international law. Artisanal or small-scale mining refers to “mining practised by individuals, groups or communities often informally (illegally) and in developing nations”. Evidence of child-labour practices seem wide-spread in the supply chains of some of the most popular jewellery brands. In Ghana, Human Rights Watch researchers talked to a 15 year-old boy who worked in a gold mine, using toxic mercury without being aware of its risks. In Tanzania, a 13 year-old boy sustained internal injuries from a collapsed shaft in in the mine where he worked. In gold and diamond mines, researchers found evidence of forced labour and people-trafficking practices, violating countless international and national protocols. In Eritrea, national service conscripts were forced to work indefinitely for a subcontractor of the Canadian gold mining company, Nevsun. Some Eritrean workers affected by this forced labour filed a lawsuit against the corporation in the Canadian judicial system, with the Supreme Court set to rule on the matter later in 2018.

Child diamond miners in Sierra Leone. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Communities have also faced environmental degradation as a direct result of gold and diamond mines, with pollution leaks, toxic waste dumps and spills affecting those who live and work close by. Large industrial mines, like the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Papua New Guinea, inflicted severe environmental damage, discharging around 58 million tonnes of untreated mining waste into rivers in Papua New Guinea, each year. Smaller-scale mines can also cause extensive damage. According to the UN, small-scale gold mines emit around 1,400 tonnes of toxic mercury annually, resulting in air, water, and soil pollution that affects both the workers and the local communities. In Nigeria, artisanal gold mining has caused unintentional releases of lead that killed over 400 children. The human and environmental costs of mining often disproportionately affects indigenous communities. There have been numerous examples of forced displacement of indigenous communities to make way for mining ventures. In Uganda, multinational gold companies consistently failed to gain free, prior and informed consent from the Karamojong communities to work on ancestral land.

Perhaps the most notorious side of artisanal mining is the relationship between gold and diamond mining and conflict and civil war. ‘Blood diamonds’ refers to diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance war efforts, often at the expense of human life. In the past two decades, seven African countries have endured civil conflicts partly fueled by diamonds: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For example, research by Amnesty International found that in the Central African Republic, armed groups, who were responsible for killing civilians and committing other war crimes, directly benefited from the diamond trade. In Latin America, gold mining has helped fuel the drug trade, finance armed groups and has become an inventive way to launder money.

In order to mitigate some of the negative impacts of gold and diamond mining, there has been a drive in recent years to implement safeguards across jewellery companies’ supply chains. Many of these are involuntary and arise from a myriad of different actors, from states to the companies themselves. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is the most well known international standard regarding diamond mining, representing 81 countries, with members accounting for 99.8% of the global production of rough diamonds. The Certification Scheme imposes “extensive requirements on its members to enable them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as ‘conflict-free’ and prevent conflict diamonds from entering the legitimate trade”. There have also been promising signs of recognising and enforcing human rights responsibilities amongst the top jewellery companies. In one report, Human Rights Watch found that Tiffany and Co., is able to “trace all of its newly mined gold back to the mine of origin”. Cartier have a “full chain of custody for a portion of the gold supply”, and Bulgari conducts regular visits to mines to check human rights conditions.

Despite these glimpses of hope, much remains to be done. The Kimberley Process contains many loopholes, often failing to adequately address the human rights abuses present in gold and diamond supply chains. According to Human Rights Watch, it relies on an extremely narrow definition of ‘conflict diamonds’, and applies only to rough diamonds. It relies on word of mouth assurances rather than transparent monitoring, and sanctions for noncompliance are almost unheard of. No company that Human Rights Watch contacted could trace all of their gold and diamonds back to the mines of origin, and only a small number of companies evaluated their supplies from artisanal mines. Rolex, the single biggest global luxury watch brand, provides no public information about its human rights due diligence or supply chain management.

And so there remains a long battle to ensure jewellery companies understand and meet their human rights responsibilities. The recent report by Human Rights Watch advocates that every jewellery company adopt and implement a detailed sourcing policy, requiring suppliers to provide detailed evidence of human rights due diligence. This should be implemented at every level of the supply chain, and the human rights due diligence should be based on international human rights standards. But what can we, as consumers, do? There are plenty of options for Valentine’s Day 2019. Ensure jewellery is ethically sourced by researching a particular brand or invest in vintage, recycled gold and second-hand sparkle. Synthetic diamonds and gemstones are also becoming an increasingly popular alternative to their organic cousin and do not rely on slave labour, environmental degradation or armed conflict.

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