Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Blood Diamonds, Transparency and the Emerging Power of Global Citizen Action

by Alex Steffen | World Changing 

Diamonds, like barrels of oil, are worth cash money everywhere, and, again like oil, the international trade in diamonds has destabilized whole regions and promoted criminal regimes. They have helped fuel the genocidal Congo wars and kept Angola in chaos. They are intimately tied to the black market in weapons. Terrorists even traffic in them to finance their plots. And these “blood diamonds” are sold in large numbers, by the billions of dollars, on the diamond bourses of Antwerp and other cities.

This is a classic example of a place where our choices — buying a diamond to catch the eye of one’s intended, for instance — fuel destruction and suffering in far-off lands, but where the connection is kept hidden from us by secretive corporations. When it comes to most commercially available diamonds, it is almost impossible to know if your dollars are funding the enslavement of children or the murder of entire villages. There’s simply no way of knowing in many retail outlets.

London’s Global Witness wants to change all that. They’re bound and determined to end the trade in blood diamonds — and the methods they’ve been using illustrate the growing power of international advocacy networks to change the world.

People increasing demand global transparency. Corporations which behave opaquely not only magnify the damage they do to their reputations if they’re caught acting unethically, but increasingly raise the odds that they will be caught. As William Gibson says

“It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret. In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future… will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.”

Diamond merchants depended on a veil of secrecy about the origins of their stones to protect them from the consequences of their trade. Global Witness realized that if it could tear down that veil, consumers would react with horror and disgust to the reality they saw, so GW began with awareness-building tactics familiar since the Abolition movement: lobbying, letter-writing, the issuing of reports. But it wasn’t until their 1998 report, A Rough Trade, that their impact began to be felt. As Matthew Hart puts it in his recent book, Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession:

“The diamond wars were a secret of the diamond trade until, quite suddenly, they were not. … [A Rough Trade] attacked the diamond trade for colluding in the war. It used statements pulled from various public documents to demonstrate the ease with which Abgolan war goods flowed into Antwerp. The United Nations had been struggling with the war trade itself, without much success. A Rough Trade’s success lay in presenting the details of the war in an accessible form. Statistics were laid out for easy reading, with maps and chronologies and even a short glossary. A photograph showed a pit holding the mud-caked bodies of victims of the war; another depicted long lines of miners in slave conditions passing buckets out of a pit. A table of figures listed the annual revenue from illicit diamonds. By leafing through the booklet one could gather at a glance the sordid history of the war, its human and material costs, and, in language made chilling by the context, the commercial considerations of the diamond business.”

The public outcry was deafening. Suddenly, blood diamonds were front page news, and the diamond cartels were threatened by a global consumer boycott — a threat which still hangs over their heads.

Others have told this story. But what is often overlooked is the degree to which new communications technologies and new advocacy techniques — particularly the Net and networked activism — both made possible Global Witness’ success and are changing the dynamics of globalization.

Global Witness skillfully used a combination of sousveillance of the diamond industry (combining everything from insider leaks to industry reports to snooping on the ground) and online networking to leverage a number of supporters and media contacts far beyond the normal reach of a small NGO. While the diamond trade is still awash in blood diamonds, big companies like DeBeers have been forced into a self-justifying dance (including the creation of an interim monitoring agreement known as the Kimberley Process) that many observers believe will eventually lead to global systems for tracking the origins (and conditions of production) of all diamonds; while some companies are already catching on, even teaming up with international NGOs.

Global Witness itself has launched new campaigns spotlighting the global trades in tropical timber and illegal oil.

There are a few trends worth pulling out here.

First, the open source software adage, known as Linus’ Law (that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”) is coming to apply to international trade and the global behavior of multinational corporations. With enough observers, all trade is transparent, whether the interests involved want it to be or not.

This increasingly applies even to places where multinationals and local oppression go hand in hand, as groups like Witness, Amnesty International, Benetech, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International grow more effective at both exposing abuses and protecting human rights workers. We’re still a long way from the ideal here, but the trend is stark and clear.

Second, international advocacy networks are growing far stronger, far more quickly than anyone would have predicted a few years back. In places and forums where the powerful are used to operating in secret and with impunity, NGO networks are forcing change, from the WTO to the intellectual property “copyfights.” We have already seen how effective such networks can be, for instance, in the work of the global campaign to ban landmines.

Not only are concerned citizens around the world more connected to each other, in a movement-as-network sort of way, they’re also getting better at convincing their fellow citizens to pay attention. Bloggers, for instance, have become integral to the human rights movement, while small bits of viral video can reach millions in days — and the tools for producing them are spreading rapidly. (All of this, by the way, plays into the recent moves by repressive governments to stifle Net freedom and is why all of us should care about the freedom to connect.)

And these international advocacy networks are growing in reach and sophistication. One sees this in the One Campaign and in the growing availability of tools to help citizens act effectively as networked observers. Already, anti-sweatshop campaigns have not only forced change in multinationals’ practices, but have actually raised working standards in non-multinational owned shops as well, according to the UN.

It would be easy, and foolish, to overstate the victories here. After all, Antwerp is still awash in blood diamonds. Torture, extra-judicial arrest and secret imprisonment are now routinely practiced by several nations which once were strong advocates for human rights. China censors the Internet. People are still dying by the thousands in Sudan, the DRC and elsewhere.

But it would also be wrong to underestimate the power of the trend here, or precisely how much influence informed and connected citizens can actually exert today, or how much that leverage could grow.

Yesterday, my friend and I walked the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp, outside of Munich, where the Nazis murdered at least 30,000 people. It was a clear, crisp sunny Bavarian day, which somehow magnified the horror of the place. And what stood out for me most was that the camp was run for a dozen years, and was still a shock to Americans when it was liberated. Many people, Americans and Germans alike, either didn’t know or were allowed to be complacent in the face of knowledge of exactly how monstrous the Nazis were. The victims of Dachau — socialists, homosexuals, prisoners of war, Jews — died invisible to the world, just as the victims of Darfur do today.

Burke said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. Perhaps today we should change it to read all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people see nothing — and more eyes are opening now than ever before.

Posted by Alex Steffen at September 9, 2006 09:30 AM

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"