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Valentine's Day: What You Should Know About Your Jewelry

Published in: CNN

I love jewelry and marvel at the workmanship of jewelers who turn raw metals and stone into beautiful, symbolic objects. Jewelry is an art -- art that I wear on my body and that tells a story.

But this Valentine's Day it's worth remembering that many jewelers betray that love by ignoring the rights and safety of the people who supply them with their raw materials. Too often, jewelers don't do enough to find out where the precious metals and stones they trade in come from.

Precious metals and stones are sometimes mined under terrible conditions. In many countries, artisanal and small-scale gold mines use child labor. Children work in deep pits that sometimes collapse on them, they process ore with toxic mercury, and hurt their backs hauling rocks. Gold mining companies have polluted the environment or hired abusive private security forces that have raped and assaulted locals. Mineral resources have also supported abusive militaries and armed groups in conflicts around the world.

Two 13-year-old boys dig for gold ore at a small-scale mine in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. © 2013 Justin Purefoy for Human Rights Watch.

I have spoken to children risking life and limb in artisanal and small-scale mines in Mali, Burkina Faso,GhanaTanzania, and the Philippines. Their stories make clear that those who buy precious minerals must do much more to protect children's rights.

In a Ghanaian village, I met 9-year-old "Zachary." This small, smiley kid had dropped out of third grade and was now shoveling heavy ore onto a wooden board to be rinsed. He was often in pain from the work. He also processed gold with mercury, mixing the liquid metal into the ore to create an amalgam, then putting it over a fire to burn off the mercury and retrieve the raw gold. Neither Zachary nor his family had heard that mercury can cause brain damage, diseases and even death.

Ghana prohibits child labor in mining, but the government has done little to enforce the law. In fact, the government's own gold trading company buys gold from local traders who get their gold from illegal mining sites where child labor is common. The company then sells the gold on to international refiners, who trade the gold further until it reaches the jewelers.

Jewelers should make sure their metals and stones have been mined under conditions that respect human rights. They should trace their materials all the way back to their sources and make sure the conditions there are independently monitored. The monitors should have expertise in human rights and child labor in particular, and there should be audits or other third-party inspections by truly independent entities. In addition, jewelers should include human rights protections in contracts with their suppliers and make public the results of their monitoring efforts.

An 11-year-old boy works at an underwater mining site in Camarines Norte province, Philippines.  © 2015 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

These steps are not unreasonable; they have been described by business and international groups as "due diligence" measures, and embraced by international norms such as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the specific guidelines on the gold trade by the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The industry knows how to do this and jewelers should make sure to be in that loop.

Some companies are already taking important steps in the right direction. The Swiss gold refiner Produits Artistiques Métaux Précieux, for example, buys its Ghanaian gold only from legal artisanal mines where it has checked labor conditions. And jewelers offering certified fair trade gold buy from traders who have detailed chain-of-custody information.

Any jeweler who says it isn't worth the trouble should be told that human lives matter. When you look at that piece of jewelry you got on Valentine's Day you want to be able to focus on its beauty and to be assured it didn't cost Zachary, or other children like him, their health or safety to get it to you.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

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