Zimbabwe: Why Credible 3rd Party Certification Still Matters

Think your “Conflict Free” diamond is conflict free? Think again.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), the well-known initiative attempting to “stem” the trade and sale of conflict diamonds, has been dealt several recent, serious blows to its credibility. Between new revelations of violence in Zimbabwe’s diamond fields, increasing evidence of diamond smuggling and fraud in Venezuela, Lebanon, and Guinea, and the recent condemnatory departure of one of KPCS’s founders, Ian Smillie, it is clear that the KPCS leaves a lot of room for improvement and innovation.

Last Friday, Human Rights Watch released a damning report accusing KPCS member state Zimbabwe of “engaging in the forced labor of children and adults” and “torturing and beating local villagers on the diamond fields of Marange district in eastern Zimbabwe.” HRW reports that the military, still controlled by the country’s former ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), “killed more than 200 people in a violent takeover of the diamond fields in late 2008.”

Zimbabwe is responding defiantly to such claims. During last week’s biannual KPCS meeting in Namibia, Zimbabwe’s mining minister addressed the growing concerns of the KPCS delegates that illegally mined diamonds are entering the pipeline, arguing that military action was necessary to curb illegal mining in the Marange fields, and pointing out that this is a goal shared by the KPCS. Indeed, in April, a high level KPCS envoy team hailed their visit with Zimbabwe’s mining ministers as a “great success,” reiterating their commitment “to help contain the illicit Marange diamond.” (pdf)

On Monday, following HRW’s allegations, another KPCS team began a new probe of the country’s diamond industry. However, speaking with reporters, Zimbabwe’s mining secretary asserted that “Marange diamonds do not fall within KPCS definition of conflict diamonds” because “under the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, conflict diamonds are rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict armies at undermining legitimate governments,” and “there is no armed conflict or any involvement of a rebel army or movement in Zimbabwe.” A day earlier, on Sunday, sources told UPI that the Zimbabwean government “arrested and jailed a member of Parliament who intended to reveal an alleged mass grave site of diamond miners” to KPCS officials.

Ian Smillie, one of the most influential architects of the KPCS, and chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), also cited Zimbabwe in his farewell letter to members as an example of why he has lost confidence in the KPCS. Zimbabwe, Smillie argues, is one instance among many in which the KPCS has basically proven itself useless:

“I feel that I can no longer in good faith contribute to a pretense that failure is success, or to the kind of debates we have been reduced to… I thought in 2003 that we had created something significant. In fact we did, but we have let it slip away from us. The KP has been confronted by many challenges in the past five years, and it has failed to deal quickly or effectively with most of them… In each case the issue has had to become a media debacle before the KP would deal with it (if at all)… Perhaps worse, we refuse to deal with human rights abuse in alluvial diamond mining, surely a fundamental issue for a body that aims to stop “blood” diamonds. For every hour we spend dealing with issues of pro-forma KP compliance, we devote four hours to argument about why and how to avoid real issues. We patrol country roads for jay-walkers, and ignore serious crime in our own back yard.

There is a basic truth: When regulators fail to regulate, the systems they were designed to protect collapse. In this case, the diamond industry, which means so much to so many, is being ill served by what has become a complacent and almost completely ineffectual Kimberley Process. Without a genuine wakeup call and the growth of some serious regulatory teeth, it leaves the industry exposed, vulnerable and perhaps, in the end, unworthy of protection.”

The situation in Zimbabwe underscores the importance of a serious and comprehensive certification system for diamonds capable of putting timely and effective pressure on non-complying members. Many in the industry see this moment as a critical credibility test for the “almost completely ineffectual” KPCS, which can ill afford to loose any more trust. Indeed, alternative mining, trade, and certification systems for diamonds, such as Fair Trade Certification, are already well on their way.

The KPCS offers yet another example that the credibility of our third party regulatory systems cannot be overstated.

— Jesse Finfrock
Jesse Finfrock is Cofounder of The Clarity Project. The Clarity Project is a fair jewelry social enterprise dedicated to improving the quality of life for miners and their communities. You can email Jesse, or follow The Clarity Project on Twitter.

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