By Jefferson Flanders

Director Edward Zwick’s movie Blood Diamond has raised a host of questions about Western complicity in the “conflict diamond” trade. To what extent has American demand for diamonds been a driving force behind brutal civil strife in Africa? Should Americans feel guilty about buying diamonds?

As with most Hollywood message movies, there’s less concern for the facts, and more interest in identifying villains—in this case, diamond merchants and, by extension, consumers in the U.S., who buy about half of the world’s diamonds. Of course the notion that Africans fight each other primarily because of corrupting Western influences—such as the diamond trade—is naïve at best, and, at worst, suggests an underlying racism. Tribal and religious warfare existed long before colonization, and much of the unrest in Africa today—whether in Sudan, Chad, the Congo or Somalia—can be traced directly to those causes.

It’s also a stretch to suggest that conflict diamonds are in great supply. The diamond industry says conflict diamonds represent fewer than 1% of the gems on the market today. The Washington Post, in an article entitled “Blood Diamonds: A River or a Droplet?” suggests that Hollywood should have been concerned with the problem back in 2000 and 2001, when it might have mattered, when “rebels in Sierra Leone were hacking off the hands of civilians in a war funded by diamonds” and “activists could barely get Hollywood’s attention.” That war ended in 2002.

Zwick maintains, nonetheless, that his movie will increase public awareness of the problem and help strengthen the Kimberley Process, the international agreement monitoring and certifying that diamonds are “conflict-free.” (Who can argue with that?) Global Witness, the British advocacy group and a leader in the anti-conflict diamond movement, argues that “smuggled diamonds and diamonds mined in abusive labor situations,” along with conflict diamonds add up to some 20% of the total, according to the Post article. That sort of expanded calculation, however, makes the perfect (a completely reformed diamond industry) the enemy of the good (eliminating diamonds as a source of funding for African conflicts).

If Blood Diamond is to have a positive impact, it should be to, in the words of Amnesty International’s Amy O’Meara, “make sure conflict diamonds aren’t being bought in stores,” while not killing demand for the gemstones.

Greg Campbell, author of the book “Blood Diamonds,” told PBS recently that it would be “a disaster if people stopped buying diamonds and turned away from them, because, ironically, now that Sierra Leone is at peace, sales of its diamonds into the global international market is one of the, if not the only, thing that is going to bring the country up to developed standards.”

Campbell noted that the diamond trade has done wonders for Botswana, “a peaceful, democratic country that, in 1999, had the fastest-growing economy in the world.” He added:

So a backlash against diamonds on any type of important or significant scale could certainly impact not just the industry and the wealth of a couple of millionaires scattered around the globe, but also the prosperity of some of the few peaceful nations in Africa.

In short, then, there’s no reason to boycott diamonds, or to feel guilty, or to believe that Americans have some unique responsibility for tribal conflict in Africa.

You have to wonder why Edward Zwick chose the topic of African conflict diamonds for his message movie. There are examples of American complicity in Third World depravity that are much closer to home. How about the link between recreational drug use in the U.S. and the violent drug lords of Latin America? Americans should feel guilty about their role in that multi-billion dollar illicit industry, an industry which causes immense damage to the societies supplying the drugs.

The connection was brilliantly illuminated in the movie Traffic (which was a remake of a British-German collaboration, it should be noted, and not an original American film) and little has changed; American consumption of cocaine and other drugs fuels the drug cartels and the crime, violence and corruption that plagues Mexico, Colombia and other afflicted countries.

That, however, might hit a little too close to home. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s party-going elite adopting a position of preachy moral superiority about the use of illicit drugs.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue 

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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