London NGO Quits the Kimberley Process Over Thriving Blood-Diamond Trade

Trade in the conflict gems thrives in the face of a toothless watchdog network, an NGO says. By Greg Campbell.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters / Landov

This holiday season, the question for spouses and lovers receiving diamond jewelry shouldn’t be whether he went to Jared. It should be where those diamonds came from before they got to Jared—or Tiffany, or Macy’s, or any corner jewelry store in the United States.

An international agreement among diamond importing and exporting countries meant to prevent consumers from inadvertently buying so-called blood diamonds has been declared a failure and a lie by one of its main architects, the London-based NGO Global Witness, which bailed out of the program Monday. The Kimberley Process, implemented in 2003 to end the trade in conflict diamonds, not only has failed to do so, the group says, but it may well be helping tainted stones make it to the market under cover of its own guarantees.

“Nearly nine years after the Kimberley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, nor whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes,” Charmian Gooch, a founding director of Global Witness, said in a statement. “It has become an accomplice to diamond laundering—whereby dirty diamonds are mixed in with clean gems.”

Global Witness’s very public vote of no confidence is just the latest blow to the Kimberley Process’s credibility over its handling of diamonds mined by Zimbabwe, considered by many to be the first real test of the scheme’s ability to ensure that diamonds mined in contravention of basic human rights are not permitted into a retail display case. The issue of conflict diamonds first came to light at the turn of the century, when bloodthirsty rebels in Sierra Leone hacked off the limbs of civilians to scare them away from that country’s rich mines, allowing the rebels to sell gem-quality diamonds into mainstream channels to finance their campaign of terror. Sierra Leone’s plight was highlighted in the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond. Lately, however, Zimbabwe has become the poster child for conflict diamonds.

One of 75 Kimberley Process participants, Zimbabwe has rampant human- rights abuses at its Marange diamond fields that have been documented not only by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and news networks such as the BBC, but by the Kimberley Process itself. Since 2006, government forces loyal to President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front party (ZANU-PF) have plundered the diamond fields, beating, killing, and sexually assaulting civilian miners. State security units use forced labor and child miners to dig their diamonds.

If ever there was a situation the Kimberley Process was meant to address, this seems to be it. But rather than act decisively to kick Zimbabwe out of the club and condemn its actions, the Kimberley Process has allowed it to continue. At issue, at least in part, is its own definition of conflict diamonds, which are defined as those mined by rebel groups fighting against an established government. It doesn’t address violent tyranny by a government against its own people.

Bowing to political pressure from Zimbabwe’s regional neighbors—and hamstrung by its perplexing policy that every decision, including whether to suspend a member for noncompliance, must be unanimous—the KP greenlighted Zimbabwean exports this summer, declaring them to be in compliance with its rules. That means that in the eyes of the Kimberley Process, Zimbabwean diamonds are just as conflict-free as Russian or South African diamonds.

That decision has led to a blowback in the diamond community, whose continued credibility in the eyes of the shopping public hinges on its claim that retailers aren’t selling blood diamonds to unsuspecting buyers. Martin Rapaport, who runs one of the world’s largest independent diamond exchanges, banned Zimbabwean diamonds from his network, whether or not they have Kimberley Process certificates. It was yet another no-confidence vote in the KP’s ability to keep the supply lines clean.

Just two months after the Kimberley Process declared Zimbabwean stones to be conflict-free, Human Rights Watch reported on Aug. 31 that “Zimbabwe police and private security guards employed by mining companies in the Marange diamond fields are shooting, beating and unleashing attack dogs on poor, local unlicensed miners.”

Global Witness, which first raised the issue of conflict diamonds in 1998, had finally had enough.

“It’s really time to acknowledge that it just isn’t working,” said Annie Dunnebacke, the organization’s senior campaigner, from the group’s headquarters in London. “It’s become such a lie—to consumers and to diamond-mining communities to whom the KP is represented as a mechanism that can protect their interests.”

Dunnebacke said a particular concern was the possibility that diamond revenue could be used to finance a crackdown on Mugabe’s opponents leading up to next year’s election.

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“We don’t want to lend our credibility to, or be associated with, a scheme that could very well end up having blood on its hands if all this cash that KP has endorsed is used to fuel violence,” she said. “We don’t want to be a part of that.”

Global Witness’s departure from the Kimberley Process comes two and a half years after another major supporter defected from the program for similar reasons—the way the KP was dealing with Zimbabwe, among other complaints. Ian Smillie, one of the founders of the Canadian NGO Partnership Africa Canada, who helped shape and implement the Kimberley Process, sympathizes with Global Witness’s decision.

“I think it’s perfectly understandable,” he said. “I got out of it two and a half years ago. I couldn’t stand to be part of a system that was taking two steps back for every step forward, and I think they finally realized that just staying in was not advancing the cause, that they could have more impact by leaving and working outside than by working inside.”

Global Witness’s departure, he said, “is certainly significant. Whether it will have any impact on the Kimberley Process or not is another question. They seem impervious to criticism. They’ve been criticized for years … and it hasn’t made much difference.”

Indeed, Eli Itzakhoff, the chairman of the World Diamond Council, whose job is to try to speak with one voice for the entire international diamond industry, called Global Witness’s move “regrettable,” but said he hopes that the coming year, in which the United States will assume the Kimberley Process’s rotating chairmanship, will be “very productive.” Regarding Zimbabwe, he referred to a statement posted on the World Diamond Council website that claims exports from certain companies operating in partnership with the Zimbabwean government have been certified as conflict-free.

The Kimberley Process will “continue to hold the Zimbabwe government to account,” it reads, “and to allow only exports from those operations in Marange that have demonstrated compliance.”

Such a promise rings hollow for its critics—the Kimberley Process isn’t meant to determine whether individual mining claims are compliant with its rules.

“The Kimberley Process is a country-compliance scheme, it’s a government-to-government certification,” said Dunnebacke. “As a whole, Zimbabwe is not compliant with the Kimberley Process. There is no ‘company compliance’ with the KP … that is absolutely not what the KP is about, it’s not what it’s meant to do, it’s not what it’s equipped to do.”

The World Diamond Council does share at least some of Global Witness’s concerns, however, especially with the Kimberley Process’s seeming inability to evolve. Like other critics, Itzakhoff blames the KP’s requirement for consensus on every decision, as well as its being an agreement among governments, which can be glacial in their pace of reform.

“Industry is on the same page as the NGOs,” he said. “We want to have this thing done in a perfect way. It’s in our interest to do that. We’re doing everything in our power to make it happen. Moving along governments is not easy. You’re talking about [the need] to move mountains sometimes, but we have done so. There’s been a lot of pressure on governments to move and sometimes the pressure works. And this Global Witness walking-out will be another notch of pressure, but we didn’t need that because the pressure is there anyway.”

That may be thin consolation for holiday shoppers looking for diamonds. As it stands now, a retailer can truthfully claim that a diamond in a necklace was certified as conflict-free by no less an authority than the Kimberley Process when it was a rough stone (the certification covers only rough diamonds, not polished ones), but still be from the hellish mines of Zimbabwe. So what’s a consumer to do?

“The best thing that they can do is ask a lot of questions,” said Dunnebacke. “Our office is in London right near the Hatton Garden district, where all the diamond shops are. If everybody who went shopping for diamonds at Hatton Garden over Christmas, if every single person went into the jeweler and said, ‘I’ve heard there are blood diamonds from Zimbabwe, I don’t want a diamond from Marange, show me the work that you do to show me that you’re not selling blood diamonds,’ that would change things overnight.

“If enough consumers ask for it,” she said, “then industry will have to come up with it. If you’re going to buy a diamond, buy from jewelers who are open about what they actually do and don’t know.”