Op-ed: Belgium’s inaction on diamond trade with Russia is not justifiable

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This op-ed was published in Dutch in De Standaard on April 12, 2022

Hans Merket

The Antwerp diamond hub presents itself as the most ethical in the world. This does not sit well with turning a blind eye on the war in Ukraine.

There are no arguments left to justify doing nothing about the flow of income that the Russian regime receives from the diamond trade with Belgium. Both the Antwerp diamond sector and the Belgian government seem to want to ride out the storm. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the storm will not just pass. The new reality requires a new approach.

First and foremost, there is the ethical question that weighs ever heavier. How many more Russian war crimes can the partnership of the Antwerp diamond sector with a Russian state-owned company that is helping to finance the regime cope with?

As a diamond centre, Antwerp has made enormous progress in terms of regulation and transparency in the last twenty years. Antwerp’s controls on the diamond trade are unparalleled. Antwerp and Belgium therefore present themselves, not unjustifiably, as the most ethical diamond centre in the world. This makes it very uncomfortable not to apply these high standards in the current controversy, because ‘it would hurt too much financially’. 

Not a temporary dip

The same discomfort concerns those who present themselves as world leaders in the fight against conflict diamonds, but now passively wait to see what Europe will do. The argument that international coordination is essential to prevent the trade from simply shifting is valid, but then, as a self-proclaimed leader, one should proactively set that coordination in motion. 

The argument that it will hurt Belgium more than Russia is also no longer decisive. The war is already hurting Belgium. The inflow of Russian diamonds has come to a standstill due to financial sanctions, logistical restrictions and certainly also due to the growing dislike among consumers for Russian diamonds. 

Everything seems to indicate that this is not a temporary dip. The sector is being shaken up on a global scale and is increasingly clearly splitting into two camps: those who want to make an extra effort to guarantee an ethical diamond trade, and those who prefer to turn a blind eye for commercial reasons. It is becoming increasingly difficult not to take sides, especially for players who market themselves with ethical principles. 

Image problem 

It is clear that this choice is not without consequences. But that is because, just as with the European gas supplies, Belgium has made itself too dependent on Russian diamonds in recent years. This situation can only be rectified by a pro-active approach. Belgium must make agreements with like-minded countries to further corner diamond centres such as Dubai, which are trying to capitalise on this crisis. 

At the same time, diamond imports should be further diversified. This could be done by attracting African diamond production again. This flow has moved to Dubai in the last ten years, partly due to image problems, but in practice the vast majority is mined responsibly. In addition, African production contributes much more to development and employment generation.