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What can we learn from the dying throes of the Kimberley Process?

Date: 25 Oct 2011

In recent years there have been a number of multi-party agreements, designed to tackle a tricky issue that individual companies or countries could not resolve acting alone. One of these was the Kimberley Process.

Its intent was to stem the flow of rough diamonds used to finance rebel movements in wars against legitimate governments - 'conflict diamonds', in other words.

It brought together governments with an interest in the diamond trade (importing or exporting) along with certain NGOs and the World Diamond Council representing the industry. It didn't have any kind of global organisation behind it - no staff, no secretariat, just an appointed chairman and a process with an international certification scheme.

In principle, the certifications scheme imposes extensive requirements on the diamond-producing member states. The aim is that shipments should become traceable to the degree that they can be certified as 'conflict-free'.

But that principle has, at least as far as some participants are concerned, broken down to the extent that the process has become of little value.

At the heart of the conflict is Zimbabwe and alleged human rights violations taking part in Marange, as well as weak internal controls by governments in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2008, more than 200 people were killed, according to a Human Rights Watch report, when Zimbabwean security forces took over the concessions at Marange.

Frustration with the Kimberley Process's continuing failure to address such issues led to a walk-out by NGOs from a recent meeting.

It has always been difficult, due to the requirement that decisions are made by full consensus. The final straw may have been what has been described by commentator Rob Bates as "pretty disastrous leadership" by the current chairman, Matthieu Yamba of the DRC. Yamba recently made a unilateral declaration clearing Zimbabwean diamonds for trade, flying in the face of those requirements for consensus.

His argument was that Kimberley had been set up with a specific mandate - conflict diamonds - and the focus on human rights abuses on the part of a member state was beyond this scope. South Africa has joined in and approved Zimbabwean gems for sale. Western nations still ban them.

The Herald in Zimbabwe put words onto the regime's viewpoint. "In this drive, the ignominious civic groups are pushing for reforms in the [Kimberley Process] that are designed to force throat [sic] other participants to pander to the whims of the western agenda. These reforms include but are not limited to an attempt to revise the term "blood diamond" so that it corruptly encompasses the false situation they are feverishly propagating about Zimbabwe."

The United States applied to take on the chairmanship from 2012, for which there is currently no candidate. This was rejected because of its advocacy on Zimbabwe. Stalemate.

And that is why, unsurprisingly, civil society groups are distancing themselves from the process and walking away. The NGOs see no way around the moral quagmire that Zimbabwe has introduced to the process. And their way of dealing with that has left them with few friends in the process that might be more effective.

Martin Rapaport, head of Israel's Rapaport Group and proponent of a new certification scheme, says that we have reached the point where "a Kimberley Process certificate does not ensure a diamond is free of human rights violations or other serious ethical problems. In fact, a KP certificate does not even ensure that a diamond is legal for trade in the United States or European Union.

The Kimberley Process may be alive in name, but to all intents and purposes it is dead. The certification carries little weight. There seems no prospect of finding common ground to bring the parties back together. End of story.

In some ways, this must surely have been inevitable. A key to the success of any multi-party process like this must be that all the parties to the agreement are brought together by an essential piece of common ground - a mutual agenda (possibly just a small overlap between radically different perspectives or interests) that the participants all agree should be achieved.

When the Kimberley Process started, a number of the African nations were not fans. Now, they are the only ones broadly content with how things are going. And that is because, as Rapaport notes, for them the issue is sovereignty - their right to control their own exports. Westerners coming in and preaching human rights to them is not something they ever felt that they signed up to.

From the point of view of the participants, this makes perfect sense in the light of the original brief for the Kimberley Process. For the point of view of consumers who don't want to buy 'blood diamonds' they don't much care if the blood is spilled by rebels or by rogue governments, they don't want the association.

It is probably unrealistic, therefore, to expect the success of any process that depends upon governments whose own activities, taken as an act of settled will, are seen as part of the problem. Only if the world could achieve such an effective boycott of diamonds associated with human rights abuses that those countries were forced into the view that they shared that common agenda could you get any kind of starting point.

And that is currently not the case. Not yet, anyway. Maybe things will change, and maybe it will be technology and corporate action that could change things.

A recently discovered technique using lasers can identify which country a diamond originated from. In recent tests, it was shown to be able to predict country of origin with 95 percent accuracy. It potentially opens the way for companies - and importing countries - to be much more effective in upholding a ban in the sale of conflict diamonds, even when malicious people go out of their way to obscure the chain of origin.

But even then, that may be only a partial solution. One of those most at the forefront of exploiting diamonds from the Marange site has been the Chinese. Chinese troops have been deployed in the area and a dedicated airstrip built. China has not been waiting for permission from the Kimberley Process, and clearly does not see itself as yet sharing that elusive common agenda.

That may not completely demolish the value of multi-party agreements in future - but we will have to deal with the fact that the days when the marketplace for ethically challenged goods were purely Western ones are over, and the ability for companies to co-operate to end abuses has consequently been weakened.


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