The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Confessions of a Secret Shopper

The "Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008" was probably the most comprehensive piece of legislation ever passed aimed at wrangling Burma’s military government. It tightened up a 2003 ban on importing Burmese rubies (and other gems), making it illegal to import rubies originally from Burma that have been processed, treated, or cut in other countries such as Thailand. Previously, the ban only restricted imports of rubies coming directly form Burma. Even before 2003, some major jewelry retailers like Tiffany and Co. had already stopped selling Burmese rubies of their own accord, but the new law requires that everyone follow suit.

Recently the US Campaign for Burma has recommended that activists become "secret shoppers" to test the new law. I recently took my own STAND chapter on such a secret shopping excursion. Essentially you find jewelry stores in your area and pose as someone interested in purchasing rubies with the ultimate goal being to find out where the rubies came from. If it turns out a store is in violation of the law, the US Campaign for Burma will send them a letter demanding they comply.

There are, however, problems.

First of all, 90% of all the worlds rubies come from Burma, meaning that stopping all Burmese rubies from entering into the US is going to be an uphill battle. Another important aspect of the ban is the fact that it is an import ban ONLY. It is not illegal to sell Burmese rubies that were already in the US before the ban. This complicates things for people trying to be secret shoppers. Even if the retailer confirms that they are from Burma, it does not necessarily mean they are violating the ban. It could just mean that the rubies entered the country before September 27, 2008.

If things are hard for secret shoppers,they’re even worse for retailers looking to actually comply with the law. The law requires ruby exporters, regardless of what country they are from, to provide written documentation to US Customs stating that the rubies are not from Burma and where exactly they came from. More than one retailer notified me personally on my chapter’s outing that often times rubies (or any type of gem) are more expensive if they come with "exporter certification," as it is called in the trade. For Tiffany and Co. this extra price is negligible; however, if you are a independent outfit then it becomes even more discouraging to try and comply with the law. Also, one of the biggest concerns is that the exporters will simply lie, and we will be buying rubies that are from "Iceland." Aside from taking the exporters word for it, there is really no other way to discern the orgin of a ruby.

It can be easy to see how many retailers would be willing to turn a blind eye to where their rubies come from. In fact many told me they flat out did not know where they came from, saying they got them from a "domestic dealer." This was a very common response according to my other chapter members.

Pushing our elected officials to take action is what we do best. But this just goes to show that passing legislation is not enough. As activists we need to remain vigilant and make sure these laws are being enforced.