Harry Winston Inc. the world renowned American luxury jeweller announced on December 15, 2021, that they would not purchase any gemstones originating from Myanmar, amidst severe critcism of the country’s ethical standards, just days before the non-profit organisation Global Witness released a damning report, alleging widespread human rights abuses in the southeast Asian nation also known as Burma.
A military junta took over Myanmar in February, prompting the US to place sanctions on its key gemstone companies. The country is best known for its jade and rubies, which the industry considers to be some of the best in the world.
Global Witness, an international NGO established in 1993, with offices in London and Washington DC, is dedicated towards breaking the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption and human rights abuses worldwide. The organisation was the pioneer in seeing the link between natural resources, conflict and corruption and had for over 25 years investigated and exposed environmental and human rights abuses in the oil, gas, mining and timber sectors and tracked ill-gotten money and influence through the global financial and political system.
On the current situation in Myanmar, ruled by a military junta, Global Wirness says the Junta’s decision to hold an international gems emporium demonstrates the urgent need for tougher international measures, including import bans and sanctions, to ensure conflict resources are not turned into a financial lifeline for the cash-strapped regime.
“The very fact that the junta is hosting an international gems fair in the midst of the country’s widespread economic and political turmoil shows its desperation to secure internationally-traded currency,” said Hanna Hindström, Senior Campaigner for Myanmar at Global Witness. “These funds will assist the military to prop up its illegitimate regime and finance the purchase of weapons used to violently oppress the country’s population.”
Harry Winston, a jeweler of the swatch group did not buy gemstones directly from Myanmar, but previously sourced them using “trusted and verified” suppliers, who had certified that their Burmese rubies and jade were imported during a period without international sanctions. As a precaution, the company took extra measures to verify the importation dates and the origin documentation was checked to make sure that everything complied with the rules.
However, consolidating their ongoing commitment to responsible and ethical sourcing, the House of Harry Winston announced recently, that their company will no longer source gemstones from its suppliers that have Burmese origin, regardless of their importation dates.
Subsequently, Global Witness announced that Harry Winston’s recent policy change was indeed a welcome move, worthy of emulation by other players in the gem and jewelry sector.
In an investigation published by Global Witness recently, Harry Winston was one of several luxury brands singled out as sellers of rubies that fuel “brutal conflict and human-rights abuses” in Myanmar. Graff, Bulgari and Sotheby’s were among others the organisation claimed were also dealing with these stones.
Global Witness further claimed that Myanmar’s gemstone trade is a “corrupt military racket” run by Min Aung Hlaing, the general who led the takeover of the country earlier this year. The Army, Global Witness claimed, has brought the gem trade under its control to tighten its grip in power and bankroll atrocities, including the February 2021 Coup led by them.
According to Global Witness, mining in the countrey is illegal following the expiration of the last license in 2020. However, since the coup, informal miners have filled the void, with soldiers “extorting payments for the right to dig for rubies and other gemstones.
Clare Hammond, Senior Myanmar Campaigner at Global Witness said, “There is no such thing as an ethically sourced Burmese ruby. These gemstones are sold as symbols of human connection and affection, yet the supply chain is steeped in corruption and horrific human-rights abuses.” According to Global Witness, the military is also holding gemstone fairs for “unscrupulous” buyers.
Based on official data, Global Witness estimates that Myanmar’s colored-gemstone industry was worth an average of US$ 346-368 million per annum, at full production between 2014 and 2017. However, the organization believes these figures are conservative and the real total could be as much as five times more.
The other renowned jeweler singled out by Global Witness as dealing in Myanmar rubies, UK-based Graff had told Rappaport News that they do not source gemstones directly from Myanmar but obtained them from trusted third party suppliers after regularly seeking and receiving assurances from them as to their source of supply within the country.
Another renowned jeweler Tiffany & Co. has stated in their website, that their company has not purchased any gemstones from Myanmar since the year 2003, when the US banned imports of products from that country.
According to Senior Myanmar Campaigner Clare Hammond, “It is almost impossible to oversee the supply chain of a Myanmar ruby. And until they know that they are being sourced responsibly, they must stop selling Myanmar rubies. The fact that a handful of brands have already acted leaves the others with no excuse not to follow suit.”
Global Witness further cautioned jewelry dealers that rival ruby supplier Mozambique is not an ethical alternative to Myanmar given the fact that mines there have also been associated with human rights abuses and corruption.