from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Guest Post: Has the Kimberly Process Lost Its Sparkle?

December 7, 2011

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A worker at the Botswana Diamond Valuing Company displays a rough diamond in the capital Gaborone, August 26, 2004. (Juda Ngwenya/Courtesy Reuters)

My colleague, Kaysie Brown, is the interim deputy director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and has written extensively on natural resources and conflict. Here, she offers her assessment of the recent challenges to ensuring the sale of diamonds do not fuel armed conflict. 

Amid the headlines of perennial eurozone crises and Middle East instability, another newsworthy event flew under the radar this week. Global Witness, the human rights watchdog providing whistle-blowing analysis and campaigns against natural resource-related conflict and corruption, withdrew as an official observer from the Kimberley Process. Citing an outdated, ineffective, and politically decrepit system, the withdrawal by Global Witness is a major blow to the credibility of the diamond monitoring group.

Diamonds, a $30 billion dollar industry, have traditionally represented love and permanence. However, the role that diamonds play in causing and financing conflict throughout the developing world, particularly in African countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, became increasingly publicized in recent years. The issue of "conflict diamonds" also moved into popular culture, from Kanye West’s Grammy winning song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” to the Hollywood movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo Dicaprio. The issue also resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Global Witness for its international work calling attention to the connection between diamonds and conflict, including its leadership in establishing the very system it just left.

Created in 2003 as a government-led rough diamond certification scheme, the Kimberley Process aims to sever the links between diamonds, violence, and tyranny. With over seventy-five participating countries, including the world’s major producing, manufacturing, and trading countries, the goals of the scheme include preventing and ending the trade of conflict diamonds through the passage of national legislation and the establishment of proper import-export control systems. The general idea behind the Kimberly Process is to provide a system that would guarantee consumers that by purchasing jewelry for their loved ones they are not inadvertently fuelling war and human rights abuses.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for Global Witness was the Kimberley Process’ recent authorization of exports from companies operating in the corrupt and controversial diamond fields in Zimbabwe. In a vote of no confidence for the scheme, the founding director of Global Witness issued a statement declaring that, “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…It has become an accomplice to diamond laundering—whereby dirty diamonds are mixed in with clean gems.”

Despite initial optimism over its creation, and much blood (no pun intended), sweat and tears by a coalition of NGOs, activists, and governments to strengthen the Kimberley Process, it has failed to correct for its debilitating weaknesses. These include the lack of an independent body to administer the process, an overreliance on participating governments, the insistence on decision making by consensus, and the failure to develop an effective policy for the most problematic diamond-producing states, including Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire. Unfortunately, most of the participating governments overseeing the process show little to no interest in reform.

While Global Witness’ departure is unlikely to result in a domino effect of mass defections from the scheme, it should serve as an immediate wake up call.  Clearly, the Kimberly Process as currently constituted is flawed and needs reform.

This presents an opportunity for the United States, which takes over the rotating chairmanship of the Kimberly Process in 2012, to show leadership and press for reform to the process.  The Obama administration has generally shown a preference to push for change within existing institutional frameworks, rather than taking a more unilateral approach as the administration’s critics would often prefer.  Reform of the Kimberly Process – which is likely to require a long process of diplomacy and consensus building – will present another test for this institutionalist approach. The Obama administration itself appears to acknowledge the need for reform.  In the words of State Department spokesman Mark Toner, the departure of Global Witness represents "another in a series of challenges to the Kimberley Process to demonstrate the capacity to implement reforms and restore its credibility."  It remains to be seen, however, whether the United States will be able to restore the sparkle to what was once regarded as a major success in the field of human rights.

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