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Exit Interview With Former World Diamond Council Head Eli Izhakoff

By Rob Bates, Senior Editor

Posted on July 9, 2013

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Last week, Eli Izhakoff stepped down after 13 years heading the World Diamond Council, which represents the diamond industry in front of the Kimberley Process. Following his service, he was not only named honorary lifetime president of the WDC, but he was honored by the South African government for his work at the KP.

Here, he talks with JCK about the challenges he encountered along the way—and possible lessons for the future:

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, I’m taking some time off. When I make a decision, everyone will know about it. I plan to stay very much involved in diamond industry political life. 

Let’s go back to the beginning.  In 2000, you were nominated to head this new industry body. 

I was called to take the position out of the blue. I came to it without much knowledge of the issue or the people involved.

After getting the nomination in Antwerp, [Belgium,] I came to New York, and there was an immediate crisis. There was a demonstration on Fifth Avenue led by [then-Ohio Democratic] Congressman Tony Hall, with placards saying, “Diamonds kill.” That brought home the scale of the crisis we were facing. 

Did you always know the KP would come about? 

We faced many different crises, and at times we thought the whole thing would fall apart. 

Finally, we were successful in getting everyone to agree to minimum standards, and we put teeth in the system by reaching agreement on a monitoring mechanism. Monitoring was the biggest breakthrough at the KP. There was a lot of anxiety from countries that monitoring would infringe on their independence. Eventually we came up with the review mission structure.  Without that, the KP would never be what it is, and it would never have the credibility that it has. 

If the Kimberley Process hadn’t come into being, what would have happened to the industry?

It would have been a catastrophe. We can never have diamonds associated with blood or violence. Can you imagine the Blood Diamond movie without the KP being in place? Having the Kimberley Process saved the industry. 

Did the movie hurt relations between the industry and nongovernmental organizations? 

Many people felt the movie was pushed by the NGOs. Maybe it was. The way I view it, the NGOs have a job to do. And even if they exaggerate at times, their aim is to help and they should be appreciated for the role that they play. I always enjoyed an excellent relationship with all the NGOs.

Was the Marange issue the biggest challenge the KP had?

Definitely. But the Zimbabwe crisis was also when the KP showed its teeth. When people say the KP is not powerful, they should tell that to Zimbabwe. We stopped their exports for two years.

Given how divided the organization was on whether to reallow Marange exports, were you worried the KP would not survive?

Of course, I was worried.  It was a very, very difficult time for the KP. The way the issue was addressed was not always to my liking. That was not a good time for the West in Africa. Africa felt it was being dictated to.  The KP took the right steps, but the approach by some countries was not always appropriate for the situation. 

Given that Zimbabwe has such a large production, if it wasn’t in the KP, those diamonds would have left the country illegally. So we had to do all that was necessary to get Zimbabwe into compliance and minimum standards—and that is what we ultimately accomplished.

What do you think of U.S. organizations pursuing initiatives on their own?

I think that all these initiatives would have gotten a lot more mileage if they consulted other organizations when developing them.

Developing initiatives without transparency, without the leadership of the industry being involved or aware of them, made them dead on arrival, and it antagonized the entire industry. I am not talking about the merits of the ideas themselves, but the way they were decided upon.  

All the ideas of having “good diamonds” and “better diamonds” are not helpful. All diamonds are created equal. Any criteria should be for all diamonds. I have no problem with creating tougher criteria, but we have to make sure that African diamonds are not separated or segregated and that the people of Africa get the most for their resources. 

Any thoughts on how the KP could work better?

I feel that the KP’s success is nothing short of fantastic. Having so many countries with such diverse interests coming together and agreeing on anything is a huge accomplishment. That said, an organization that just rests on its laurels is bound to become irrelevant. We should always strive to do better, and I believe the KP will do that. There are a few reforms that still have to pass, including widening the definition of “conflict diamonds.” 

Speaking about reforms, the ASM [administrative support mechanism], which we passed last year, has already shown its usefulness.

Presently, we have an Intercessional and a Plenary. This is a major expense for the host countries, the NGOs, and the industry. We should have the chairman serve for two years, and host a Plenary twice. All other KP business can be transacted by teleconference.

We should have more transparency in the KP and I would suggest that the general meetings should be open to the press. Participants might even play a more positive role if they felt the world is watching.

Anything you are particularly proud of during your tenure? 

I’m proud of the WDC, of making it happen. I’m proud of the KP, which I think is more effective and credible than people realize. In 20 to 30 years, when we look back, we’ll appreciate how much has been done.

Anyone you want to thank?

There are many that I want to thank. All my board of directors, present and past. I also want to single out four very important women in the KP: former South African mining minister [and deputy president] Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; the current minister of mines, Susan Shabangu; former KP chair Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic; and from the WDC, our own Cecilia Gardner. All these four women had tremendous impact on making the KP what it was today.

Most of the chairs have done a great job, particularly the diplomats, including Karel Kovanda, and the current chair, Welile Nhlapo. De Beers has always been helpful with strong support for the WDC, both politically and financially.  

While I’m at it, I’d like to talk about [Israeli journalist and WDC member] Chaim Even-Zohar. He has rankled many people in this industry and governments, including myself. Having said that, he has contributed a great deal to the industry. I can mention two instances. He helped me in drafting and passing the resolution supporting widening of the conflict diamond definition [at the 2012 WDC annual meeting] in Vicenza; and he also helped me in lobbying to secure the release of [Zimbabwe NGO activist] Farai Maguwu and having the charges against him dropped.

Any thoughts you want to add?

We always have to make sure our product is free of any taint of conflict, that it remains a symbol of love and commitment. We need to remain united and to be continually talking, discussing, and compromising.

I also feel we, as an industry, are spending too much time regulating ourselves. Regulation is important. However, we need to meet additional challenges. We need to come up with initiatives that will lead to the growth of our industry and restore its profitability, while maintaining the WDC and KP. If we don’t think about ways to grow our industry, we won’t have an industry left to regulate.

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