Global Witness Is Watching

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By Amber Michelle

Someone is watching the diamond industry in a way that it has never been watched before. It’s Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) working to expose the link between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses. Believing that one of the most basic human rights is the right to a peaceful existence, the staff of six and multiple volunteers who comprise Global Witness, care enough about the world around them and global injustices to put their lives on the line to affect change. Global Witness goes to war torn nations and works to improve environmental conditions while helping nations stabilize their economies for the good of their citizens.

“We operate in areas where natural resources are funding conflict. We collect evidence and use it to achieve positive long-term change,” explains Charmian Gooch, director of Global Witness, who cites the timber trade in Cambodia — the country’s greatest natural and economic resource — as one of the group’s success stories.

According to Gooch, the timber trade was being illegally abused by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Timber was funding the Khmer Rouge para military operation to the tune of about $10 to $20 million a month and depriving Cambodian citizens of the benefits of the revenue from the logging. In addition, the natural resource was being depleted to such an extent that the World Bank predicted the timber would be nonexistent by 2003.

Global Witness conducted research investigations in the country, compiled the information into a report and then gave it to 21 governments around the world, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Through the efforts of Global Witness, the Thai-Cambodia land border was closed down, which curbed the illegal timber trade by the Khmer Rouge. And the government implemented a system to review all logging company contracts to ascertain that timber firms are abiding by the laws. The controls effectively put the Khmer Rouge out of business.

“We were able to decrease widespread illegal logging. Timber revenue is important to Cambodia. We are trying to minimize the environmental damage and governmental corruption and maximize timber revenues and resource management,” comments Gooch who notes that for the first time in 25 years there is no war in Cambodia.

Global Witness in Africa

Recently, Global Witness has been taking a hard look at the atrocities created by war in the diamond producing nations of Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The group is not out to stop diamond trading, but instead to set up a system of controls that will protect the future of the diamond industry. And the organization is not saying that diamonds are the cause of the wars in Africa, but Global Witness does assert that diamonds are a contributing factor to the wars because proceeds from the rough allow the opposing groups to fund the conflict.

“We want to ensure that diamonds in the long-term are associated with love and not coming out of conflict or funding war,” says Gooch. “We’re trying to achieve practical, positive change. We want to safeguard people’s interests.”

The goal for Global Witness in Africa, is to put controls in place in the diamond industry so that buyers all along the pipeline are aware of the origin of the diamonds they are purchasing. The group is also lobbying relevant governments in key market producer countries to help implement controls and is lobbying Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler, chairman of the UN sanctions committee on Angola.

Global Witness has just recently started its research on how to implement controls in the diamond industry to ensure that the stones are not funding war. It is also looking at what measures need to be taken and how they can be instituted in a way that will benefit the people of Angola and the diamond trade.

De Beers

Last month, De Beers announced that it had placed an embargo on the purchase of all diamonds from Angola by its buying offices around the world, that it was ending its participation in all buying operations in Angola and that it was reviewing its buying operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea.

“De Beers’ recent statement is a small but needed step,” says Gooch, “De Beers needs to put in clear measures that they can explain easily to assure the trade and the public that they are not buying war diamonds.”

In Europe, Global Witness — along with three other nongovernmental organizations; Medico International, Novib and Netherlands Institute for South Africa, have recently launched a media campaign — Fatal Transactions — to bring awareness of conflict diamonds to the public. Gooch points out that the publicity campaign is not anti-diamond, but anti-war. And the organization acknowledges that diamond revenue is hugely beneficial to a country’s economy if transparently controlled such as in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa where diamond earnings have funded economic growth and stability. The campaign urges consumers to “…ask the diamond trade to implement effective controls to ensure that diamonds do not fund rebel armies in Africa. And to ask companies such as De Beers what controls they will introduce to ensure that these conflict diamonds do not reach the marketplace.” Currently, Global Witness is seeking an American NGO to get involved in the campaign.

“The diamond industry needs to wake up and figure out what to do to implement controls,” concludes Gooch. “Governments are looking at tangible ways to control war diamonds that are going into the marketplace. The conflicts are creating instability in the region and are a major obstacle to development in Africa.”

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