Jewellers have made it easy to buy a diamond while keeping your conscience clean. They’ve adopted a passport system showing the origin of every stone, so you can be sure that your hard-earned money isn’t funding a brutal militia in a historically conflict-torn nation such as Angola, Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you don’t want a blood diamond, you can be certain you’re not buying one.
But for those who prefer the rich colour of a ruby or a sapphire, it might keep you up at night to learn the profits from Burmese gemstone sales may be going to a military regime that the United Nations accuses of genocide.
The U.S.-based International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) is calling for shoppers to boycott so-called “genocide gems” from Myanmar this holiday season, in hopes of punishing the military regime that killed thousands of ethnic Rohingya people last year. The regime has a major stake in the gemstone trade through its two large holding companies, which help Myanmar produce approximately 90 per cent of the world’s high-end rubies, along with some of its priciest sapphires. Myanmar also produces massive quantities of jade for China.
China imported an estimated $31 billion worth of jade from Myanmar in 2014, according to a report by Global Witness. Myanmar’s gross domestic product in 2014 was US$65.45 billion, according to the World Bank.
Most of Myanmar’s Burmese rubies and sapphires are smuggled into Thailand to be cut and sold on the international market, multiple industry experts told Global News.
United Nations trade data from Myanmar and Thailand shows the two nations reporting very different export and import numbers with one another over several years. For instance, Thailand reported bringing in US$4.7 million worth of uncut precious and semi-precious stones from Myanmar in 2016, while Myanmar reported sending over just $1.8 million worth of stones. Thailand has not provided data for 2017, but Myanmar claims to have exported $106,539 to its neighbour last year.
Thailand was the second-highest exporter of rubies to the U.S. by weight (310 kilograms) in 2014, and the highest exporter by value ($59 million), according to data from the U.S. Geological Service. Thailand did not produce any ruby from its own mines in 2014, according to the USGS annual industry report. USGS data for Myanmar shows it produced 486,945 kilograms of ruby in 2014.
“Professionals in the trade know that nowadays, Thailand doesn’t produce rubies,” said Montreal-based gemologist Odile Civitello.
“If you see jewellery that says ‘made in Thailand’ or ‘made in Hong Kong,’ those gemstones could come from Myanmar,” said Erin Murphy, an industry consultant and former gemstone advisor in the Obama administration.
Myanmar used to be known as Burma, and its most coveted gemstones still use the name. Burmese rubies and sapphires can fetch up to eight-figure prices through high-end auctions and online jewellery retailers. Most gems come with a lab-test certificate showing which country they come from, but these certificates often don’t say which company profited from their sale.
In other words, luxury retailers putting up $100,000 Burmese ruby rings may be reselling a gem sourced from a military-linked mine, and customers would never know.
Myanmar accused of genocide
ICR organizers say boycotting gems from Myanmar is an effective way to punish the military for its violent campaign against the Rohingya, an ethnic group of approximately 1 million Muslims. Myanmar’s government has persecuted the Rohingya for over four decades, denying them citizenship, refusing to let them vote in elections and launching multiple campaigns to push them out of the country.
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The ongoing struggle hit a breaking point last August, after a small faction of Rohingya militants killed 12 security officers. The Myanmar military responded with a swift, brutal and large-scale campaign to wipe out Rohingya villages in Rakhine state. The military killed an estimated 6,700 Rohingya during the campaign, according to an estimate from Medicines Sans Frontieres. More than 727,000 Rohingya fled the country into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they’ve lived in refugee camps ever since, the United Nations reports.
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Several nations, including Canada and the United States, have sanctioned Myanmar’s top military leaders in response to the crisis. The UN has called for those leaders to stand trial for genocide — an accusation the military has denied.
How can I spot a ‘genocide gem’?
ICR organizer Simon Billenness says these “genocide gems” are the new “blood diamonds,” because any Burmese gemstone purchase may profit a business linked to Myanmar’s military.
Myanmar’s military controls two of the country’s four major mining companies, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL), according to a comprehensive industry report from 2016. However, their opaque supply chain makes it very difficult to know which mine a Burmese gem came from.
ICR’s campaign echoes the decades-old fight against so-called blood diamonds, also known as conflict diamonds. A conflict diamond is any diamond purchased from a war-torn country where the profits go toward funding the armed conflict.
Jewellers, non-government organizations and several nations responded to the outcry over blood diamonds by developing the Kimberley Process in 2000. The system establishes a passport for every diamond, so jewellers can demonstrate exactly where their product was mined and cut. The Kimberley Process website claims to have stemmed 99.8 per cent of the global production of conflict diamonds.
The same mine-to-market process does not exist for coloured gemstones.
Civitello says a jeweller with a good Burmese gem will happily tell you where it’s from, because that’s part of its appeal. Top-end gems will also come with a certificate showing that they’ve been verified in a lab. However, smaller gems don’t always come with their full documentation.
“A good gem dealer … should be able to tell the customer where it comes from, and most of the time they will have a certificate of origin,” she told Global News. “But that’s not always 100 per cent [accurate].”
Civitello says it’s difficult to say how many Burmese gems are in the North American market, but most of the gems in the U.S. and Canada are from Africa. Burmese gems are often the centrepieces of luxury rings, necklaces and earrings sold by some of the world’s most prominent jewellers.
There are several sources of rubies in the world, including Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Vietnam, Australia, Nepal and Madagascar. However, Burmese rubies are prized above all others for their deep red “pigeon’s blood” colour, she said.
Civitello has visited Myanmar several times to study its gemstone mines, particularly the one in Mogok, the renowned “Valley of Rubies” and source of some of the world’s most expensive gems.“I was told if someone in Mogok finds a big stone, they don’t tell anyone,” she said. [There’s a fear if] the military finds out about it and they will just take it,” she said.
The only way to be certain about a gem’s origin is to have it tested at a gemological laboratory, “although it’s quite difficult because some other rubies in the world might have similar characteristics,” Civitello said.
Second only to diamonds
Myanmar claims to produce approximately 90 per cent of the world’s high-end rubies. However, an estimated 60-80 per cent of Myanmar’s gems are exported outside the formal system, so it’s difficult to fully grasp the size of the industry, according to a 2016 report by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Myanmar. The world’s coloured gemstone industry is worth approximately US$12 billion annually, according to the report.
The most valuable non-diamond ever sold at auction was the 25.59-carat Sunrise Ruby from the Mogok Valley, which fetched US$30 million at auction in 2015. Cartier set the ruby in a ring before it sold the gem through the Sotheby’s auction house. The sale took place before Cartier committed to stop sourcing gems from Myanmar in late 2017.
Civitello says rubies and sapphires are more popular in the Asia-Pacific region than in North America or Europe. However, data shows their popularity is growing.
The American diamond market is roughly 10 times larger than its coloured gemstone market. Nevertheless, coloured gemstone imports grew by 23 per cent from 2016 to 2017, while diamond imports dipped by three per cent, according to the U.S. Geological Service. The U.S. imported approximately $2.5 billion in gemstones for consumption in 2017.
Most of Myanmar’s gemstones are smuggled out to neighbouring Thailand or Hong Kong to be processed, according to Erin Murphy, who studied the industry closely as an advisor for the U.S. government in 2016. Murphy visited Myanmar in 2016 after the U.S. lifted a 13-year ban on imported jade and rubies from the country.
“If you have a high-quality gem, and it’s a ruby, especially the pigeon’s blood rubies … it probably came from Myanmar,” she said.
She added that jewellers often stock up their gemstones for years, so some jewellers might have Burmese gems in their collection even after they’ve committed to stop buying more.
Billenness says some jewellers circumvented the U.S. ban by buying their Burmese gems through Thailand. Those are the jewellers he’s trying to target.
Who is selling Burmese gems?
Billenness is planning to protest against the Italian jeweller Bulgari this holiday season, in hopes that its parent company, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, will commit not to purchase gems mined from Myanmar. Bulgari’s “Diva Dream” line currently features a necklace and ring made with Burmese sapphires, according to its website. Bella Hadid wore both items to the Cannes Film Festival last year.
ICR launched a similar campaign against Bulgari last year, prompting the company to say in December that it does not buy gems “in Myanmar.”
“All coloured gemstones used by Bulgari are purchased from internationally recognized auction houses through established international markets. Bulgari stipulates that its suppliers comply with its code of ethics,” the company said in a statement issued in January.
Bulgari said it “firmly condemns any kind of violence,” and that it’s not aware of any new international sanctions on Myanmar since 2016. “Myanmar’s civil government is undergoing a deep political and economic transformation to a democratic state,” the company said.
The company declined to comment on the renewed pressure campaign to Global News.
“We believe that individual and non-coordinated private initiatives from non-official institutions, rather than helping solve some potential issues, may backfire creating other issues such as illegal trading and further poverty,” it said in January. Bulgari added that it is part of the Responsible Jewellery Council and a participant in the DragonFly Initiative, a sustainable advisory firm that includes several other top jewellery brands.
Bulgari previously joined several other luxury brands in boycotting Myanmar gems in 2007.
ICR successfully convinced Cartier to stop selling Burmese rubies and sapphires last December after an ICR campaign that accumulated more than 150,000 petition signatures pushed it to do so.
“As part of our continuous review process to ensure ethical sourcing, Cartier has decided to stop purchasing gemstones from Myanmar,” the company said in response to a Facebook comment from Billenness.
“Cartier will not purchase certified goods from the country, and will make its best effort to ensure that non-certified gemstones did not originate there.”
Billenness says he was pleased by the “very early success” of the Cartier campaign, and he sees no evidence of Burmese gems in its current lineup. He hopes Bulgari will commit to stop selling Burmese gems as well.
Billenness says he hasn’t identified any other major jewellers that appear to be dealing in Burmese gems. However, the stones are still readily available through various online auction sites.
Murphy says there were still plenty of Burmese gems on the U.S. market during the last round of sanctions, because jewellers often store their gems for years before using them in a ring or necklace.
She adds that Billenness’ boycott campaign probably won’t hurt the Myanmar military, because it makes most of its money through exporting jade to China.
“If you’re looking to cut [the military] off, you would have to corral China, and they just don’t care,” she said.
Supply chain ethics
Most major jewellers try to adhere to ethical supply chain policies but fall short of international standards, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report that examined gold and diamond sources for 13 top European brands. The authors found that “almost none” of the jewellers could trace all of their components back to the individual mines where they originated. The report did not analyze gemstone sourcing practices, but it did recommend jewellers put a chain of custody in place “for all precious metals and gems, including diamonds.” HRW also recommends jewellers publish the names of their metal and gem suppliers on an annual basis.
“While some companies are actively working to identify and address human rights risks in their supply chains, others rely simply on the assurances of their suppliers,” the report authors wrote.
Tiffany & Co. received the only “strong” rating in the report, for taking “significant steps toward responsible sourcing.” Bulgari, Cartier, Pandora and Signet received “moderate” ratings for taking some important steps. Boodles, Chopard, Christ and Harry Winston were rated “weak” and Tanishq was rated “very weak” on their sourcing practices.
Tiffany & Co. and Pandora welcomed the report in separate statements to HRW. Bulgari and Chopard pointed out that they follow industry-wide ethics standards. Signet accused HRW of using language “chosen more to criticize our industry rather than provide constructive recommendations.” The company said it emphasizes transparency and protecting human rights through its Signet responsible sourcing protocols, which are mandatory for all of its suppliers.
Boodles said it has relied on its suppliers to identify and mitigate human rights issues, and acknowledged that it could do more to ensure its suppliers are “sourcing materials in an ethical and sustainable manner.”
Cartier declined to comment. Harry Winston, Christ and Tanishq did not respond to requests for comment, HRW says.
Tiffany & Co. stopped buying Burmese gems in 2003, after the original U.S. gemstone ban was imposed. Tiffany’s says it has not purchased gemstones from Myanmar since then, according to its latest sustainability report.
International and citizen sanctions
Murphy says most North American and European jewellers have been hesitant to deal with Myanmar since the 13-year U.S. ban on its products was lifted in 2016.
The late Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin co-sponsored a bill last year to re-impose those gemstone sanctions as punishment for the Rohingya crisis. The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act received bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, although it hasn’t been passed into law. The latest version of the bill was modified to ban only jade imports, and not rubies.
Billenness hopes his campaign will convince jewellers to be more transparent with their supply chain, regardless of whether it impacts the Myanmar military’s profits.
“It is possible, with some effort, for the jewellery companies to not buy genocide gems in Burma,” he said. “They just have to be really clear on where the gems were mined and where the gems were cut.”
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Catholic Bishops react to military coup in Mali
Contrary to the expectations of the people, the leadership of the Episcopal Conference of Mali (CEM) has termed the Tuesday, August 18 military coup in the West African nation as “regrettable” and “a big failure for our democracy” and called for a change of mentality if the country has to put an end to coups.
In an interview with ACI Africa Wednesday, August 19, made available to RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA, the President of CEM, Bishop Jonas Dembélé said that the governance challenges the country is facing can be managed through dialogue.
“The military coup that led to the ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is regrettable because we are in a state of law and democracy. This is the second time that Mali has had a military coup as a result of the way in which the country is governed. It is a big failure for our democracy even if there were reasons for it,” Bishop Dembélé told ACI Africa.
“It is true that our country has serious challenges including bad governance, the poor management of the economy, corruption, insecurity and so on,” Bishop Dembélé said and probed, “Why is it that we Malians have not managed to engage in dialogue to be able to discuss these problems and face up to these challenges responsibly?”
“Our leaders, our people lack transparency, they hate those who speak the truth and advocate for good governance. This mentality must change for our country to move on,” the Prelate told ACI Africa August 19.
Bishop Dembélé who is a frontline member of RECOWA-CERAO urged the military officials “to ensure a return to democracy as promised but most especially ensuring the new leadership of the country put the people first and tackle the security challenges facing the nation.”
Asked about the role of the Church in the current crisis, the 57-year-old Prelate noted, “For us the Catholic Church in Mali, our role is to preach peace; our role is to preach dialogue. We shall continue in this path of dialogue for peace just like Cardinal Jean Zerbo and some religious leaders initiated.”
“In a state of law, power is not in the hands of certain individuals but to the people. The anger of our people led to this crisis, but we must work for peace and reconciliation in Mali,” Bishop Dembélé said.
He continued in recollections, “The Bishops in Mali have always issued messages before every election in our country sounding the alert and inviting the government to organize transparent elections, ensure good governance and better management of resources.”
“But it seems our messages are never taken into consideration that is why we find ourselves in this situation today,” the Local Ordinary of Kayes Diocese told ACI Africa and added, “If the opinion of the Episcopal Conference of Mali is needed to mediate in bringing back stability and peace in the country, then we are ready.”
As a way forward, the Bishop urged the people of God in Mali to “seek the path to conversion” and to accept dialogue in the spirit of truth and honesty.
“We all want change in our
country, but this change can only be possible if individually we seek the path to conversion. It is for Malians be they Muslims or Christians or members of traditional religion, to do an examination of conscience and accept personal and community conversion in order to engage in sincere dialogue,” he said.
The Malian Prelate added, “Now there is this coup d’état to demand change we really wonder where change should come from. As long as we don’t change our behavior, our mentality, we will always have a repeat of the current situation.”
On Tuesday, August 18, President Keita announced his resignation and dissolved parliament hours after mutinying soldiers detained him at gunpoint, Aljazeera reported.
“For seven years, I have with great joy and happiness tried to put this country on its feet. If today some people from the armed forces have decided to end it by their intervention, do I have a choice? I should submit to it because I do not want any blood to be shed,” President Keita said August 18 during the televised address to the nation.
Rev. Fr. George Nwachukwu
RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA
Harris accepts VP nomination
Senator Kamala Harris formally accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president on Wednesday following a scathing speech by former President Barack Obama, who said the fate of the nation” depends entirely on the outcome of this election.”
Both Mr. Obama and Harris stressed the importance of voting, with Harris saying “we’re all in this fight together.” Harris sounded an optimistic note by highlighting her personal history and the promise of America, saying she was “so inspired by a new generation.”
“Make no mistake, the road ahead will not be not easy,” she said. “We will stumble. We may fall short. But I pledge to you that we will act boldly and deal with our challenges honestly. We will speak truths. And we will act with the same faith in you that we ask you to place in us.” She called Mr. Trump a “predator” in a speech that came after Mr. Obama issued his most forceful rebuke of his successor to date, saying Mr. Trump “hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”
“This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism,” Mr. Obama said. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.
That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”
Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the night, both said they had hoped Mr. Trump would rise to the occasion. But they both stressed what they called his failures while in office, with Mr. Obama saying Mr. Trump has shown “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”
Mali coup leaders vow to hold elections as history repeats itself
The Malian soldiers who forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign in a coup promised early Wednesday to organize new elections after their takeover was swiftly condemned by the international community.
In a statement carried overnight on state broadcaster ORTM, the mutinous soldiers who staged Tuesday’s military coup identified themselves as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People led by Colonel Major Ismael Wagué.
“With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness,” Wagué said, announcing that borders were closed and that a curfew was going into effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m
The news of Keita’s departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Bamako, and alarm by former colonial ruler France and other allies and foreign nations.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed meeting Wednesday August 19, 2020 afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali, where the U.N. has a 15,600-strong peacekeeping mission. Keita, who was democratically elected in a 2013 landslide and re-elected five years later, still had three years left in his term.
But his popularity had plummeted, and demonstrators began taking to the streets calling for his ouster in June.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS had sent mediators to try and negotiate a unity government but those talks fell apart when it became clear that the protesters would not accept less than Keita’s resignation.
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