Blood Diamonds and the Kimberley Process: UN-fit for Purpose

A new and democratic government in Zimbabwe is needed and we should use the Arab Spring to encourage this.

Diamonds are forever, but Mugabe's regime should not be
George Grant
On 21 June 2011 10:15

When the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was first established in 2003, it was hailed as a triumph for corporate social responsibility, and a hammer-blow against those groups reaping financial gain from a bloody trade in conflict diamond that had cost tens of thousands of innocent lives.

Less than a decade later, however, and this optimism has been tempered indeed. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the KPCS only proscribes the purchase of diamonds obtained through conflict and mined by rebel groups, rather than merely proscribing the purchase of diamonds proscribed through conflict in general.  

Given that it was the United Nations that ratified the scheme, in General Assembly Resolution 55/56, this is hardly surprising. It is state governments that vote at the UN, and turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Clamping down on rebel groups is something every state leader, whether democratic or despotic, can comfortably agree on. Clamping down on violent and kleptocratic activity by governments themselves is another matter entirely.

This problem has manifested itself most violently in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF controls the enormous Marange diamond fields in the east of the country. Since the violent seizure of the fields by ZANU-controlled forces in October 2008, the extraction of Marange diamonds has been conducted in precisely the manner the Kimberley Process was designed to prevent: through forced-labour, violence and death.

Though some sanctions do now exist on the Marange fields, efforts by groups such as Global Witness and Partnership Africa-Canada (PAC) to see Zimbabwe formerly suspended from the scheme have repeatedly failed. This is not for want of trying by such organisations, which perform an extremely important and effective function in highlighting abuses of the system and seeking to hold perpetrators to account. Rather the problem rests at a higher and altogether more depressing level: most governments reel at the prospect of holding a fellow government to account in the same manner as they would a rebel group. Go down that path, they think, and they could be next.

Indeed, far from taking Zimbabwe to task, many African governments contend that efforts to see the country suspended are little more than a thinly-veiled Western plot to control global diamond markets.

Changing the KP to hold governments such as Zimbabwe to account, therefore, seems a more-than daunting challenge, and it is unlikely to happen through the regular channels any time soon. In advancing this effort, civil society certainly has a critical role to play, particularly so outside the West. African NGOs especially need to be – and be seen to be – at the forefront of efforts to combat this problem and force a change that cannot simply be tarred with the tired old anti-Western brush.

The reality, however, is that KPCS compliance only becomes an issue in countries where governments routinely violate human rights and the rule of law as a matter of course, regardless of whether diamonds are involved or not.

So here’s the bottom line: whilst efforts to reform the KPCS must continue, they must be accompanied by an equally important effort on the part of civil society actors and responsible international governments to challenge the status quo inside Zimbabwe itself. The surest way to make progress on Zimbabwe’s conflict diamond problem is to make some progress on its regime problem, for the former is a symptom of the latter.

Certainly, encouraging the emergence of a Zimbabwean government that is responsive to the needs of its citizens and respectful of the rule of law will be hard, but if events in North Africa and the Middle East have taught us anything, it is that change is always possible, however well-entrenched the system may seem. Morevoer, that something is difficult to achieve is not, and never was, sufficient excuse to do nothing at all. And those putting all their eggs in the Kimberley basket should recognise that getting the UN to change its ways on such matters will be an altogether taller order. 

George Grant is Director for Global Security & Terrorism at The Henry Jackson Society in London. This first appeared on the HJS Scoop blog and is republished with consent.

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