Diamonds – best friend or worst enemy?

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Photo by Flickr user jurvetson

Some of the poorest countries in the world have some of the largest reserves of diamonds. They have the potential to lift thousands of people out of poverty – but they can also be the cause of horrendous human rights abuses and a major driver of conflict.

The contribution that minerals – and diamonds in particular – make to sustaining conflict has been widely reported over recent years with examples quoted form every continent. One of the earliest accounts came from Angola, in the early 1990’s, when gems were being traded on the world market to pay for weapons to be used in the conflict between UNITA and the MPLA. Later, the illegal sale of diamonds from Sierra Leone contributed to fighting across a broad swath of West Africa and led to the coining of the term “blood diamonds” – the ramifications from fighting in this region roll on even though the conflict is long over. Charles Taylor is on trial at the ICC in The Hague and even famous personages from the fashion world have been recently implicated.

To try to counter this blood-tainted trade the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KP) was founded in 2003, under the umbrella of the UN General Assembly, as a mechanism to verify that diamonds entering the world market are not being used to contribute to or sustain conflict. It was aimed to eliminate illicit sales of diamonds that could have negative consequences for the countries concerned in different ways. Not only could the sale of smuggled diamonds be used as a  source of finance for the illegal purchase of weapons, they could also damage the economies of the source countries through loss of revenue from both the value of the gems and the potential income from taxation.  The KP now has 49 participants, representing around 75 countries, who have all agreed to abide by terms and conditions designed to achieve complete transparency in the passage of diamonds from source to end user. Not only producing nations agreed to abide by the KP conditions: most diamond cutters and polishers also agreed to deal only in gems whose provenance could be proved.

For quite a number of years, the KP has worked very effectively, along the lines which were originally intended, assisted in part by the reduced number of conflicts in diamond producing areas which created the demand. However, the KP is currently under considerable strain, due to a different interpretation of the small print of the agreement. The wording of the scheme refers to “conflict diamonds” a strict interpretation of which implies conflict straddling one or more international borders. However, a situation has recently arisen unforeseen by the original KP signatories, relating to allegations of the sale of diamonds being associated with gross human rights abuse perpetrated by a national army against its own people: in Zimbabwe.

The situation in the Marange diamond fields was highlighted in a recent BBC documentary: artisanal miners have been chased away from the very lucrative diamond fields; those that have resisted have been very badly treated. Furthermore, little if any, of the revenue from the diamonds is reaching the Central Bank – there is plenty of speculation about who is actually benefitting. The proven reserves in Marange are enormous and could be a huge benefit to the shattered economy of Zimbabwe, if managed transparently.

The KP is seriously divided on the Zimbabwe issue and the disagreement is threatening to do possibly fatal damage to the scheme. Members who are only prepared to view the scheme literally and who think that there should not be a broader interpretation of the terms and conditions beyond the printed word, see the Zimbabwe issue as outside KP’s mandate and would see taking any kind of position as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Others see the scheme as a mechanism for promoting good governance and respect for human rights more broadly and feel that it is the KP’s duty to intervene. The allegations of mistreatment, even killings, are too numerous to ignore. Trade in Zimbabwe diamonds should be suspended at least until there has been an independent investigation. If the allegations are shown to be correct, then Zimbabwe’s diamonds are tainted – blood diamonds – and should not enter the world market.

The disagreement amongst KP members is threatening the future of the entire scheme and it is this that anyone who values the successes that have achieved by the KP in the past need to be most concerned about. Apart from disagreements around the table at the various meetings that have been convened in recent months, officials have overruled standard procedures, have made unilateral decisions and have thrown the whole process into confusion. The Chairman made a statement declaring that Zimbabwe could trade its diamonds, other Board members argued that he had no authority to make such a statement and that restrictions should still apply. Diamond traders are unsure what to do, at least one founding member of the KP has walked out.

From the perspective of anyone who has a concern for good governance and human rights, it is imperative that KP resolve this issue – it is far too important a mechanism to be jeopardised by the Marange diamond issue, important though that might be. The KP is a mechanism that has brought together people from different backgrounds and areas of interest: politicians, civil society representatives and technicians from within the diamond industry. It is an example, a possible model, of how people can work together around a single issue in a way that can potentially benefit hundreds of thousands of people. To allow the KP to collapse would be a huge disincentive to other initiatives that might be taken in future, where other natural resources are being used illicitly to fuel unrest or conflict.  While the strict letter of the terms of reference might refer to issues that have an international dimension, human rights are universal. The underlying intentions that gave rise to the KP in the first place were to improve the lives of ordinary people at risk of getting caught up in conflict, by eliminating and important source of finance for conflict. Whether conflict crosses an international boundary or if it is confined to within a nation’s borders, it matters not to the victims. The KP must not collapse and must continue to strive for those ideals that conceived it eight years ago.

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