An Embarrassment in the Making for the Kimberley Process?

Many in our industry are wary of the NGOs, which don’t always paint the most flattering portrait of our industry. But some of them, particularly those based in African countries, often do their work under considerable threat. They are brave people.

I have now interviewed two NGO activists who have been arrested. The first, Farai Maguwu, head of the Zimbabwe NGO Centre for Research and Development, was accused of passing government secrets to the Kimberley Process monitor in 2010. He spent 40 days in jail and nearly died. When the KP agreed to allow limited Marange exports, Maguwu’s release was part of the deal, helped in part by the efforts of the World Diamond Council.

Now, Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan author and activist who has written and spoken frequently about the human rights problems in the country’s diamond fields (including to JCK), has been charged with defamation by seven government-connected generals over his book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola. He is currently standing trial in his home country, where apparently defamation is a criminal offense. (He was sued for defamation in Portugal over the book; the charges were tossed.) When he showed up for trial on March 24, the court ended up adding more charges.

In a textbook example of the Streisand effect, the arrest and trial have brought unprecedented attention to the problems in Angola’s diamond fields. (See articles here, here, and here.) And while this case does not relate to directly to the KP’s mandate, it will inevitably have repercussions, given that, due to spectacularly unfortunate timing, Angola is chairing the KP this year. It certainly doesn’t appear right for a blood diamond watchdog to be headed by a country that might jail a blood diamond activist.

The Kimberley Process was designed to stop conflict diamonds, but at its best it also presents a forum for NGOs, government officials, and the diamond industry to discuss issues in an open, substantive way—its vaunted tripartite structure. Cases like these strike at the heart of what the KP tries to do.

The slight difference between this and Maguwu’s case is that that the latter was—and remains—part of the KP NGO coalition. So you had, in effect, one leg of the KP stool trying to jail another. Marques is not part of the NGO group—he’s turned down offers to join—but NGO colleagues say they are very aware of his case. 

“It is the elephant in the room,” says Alan Martin, research director at Partnership Africa Canada, and member of the NGO coalition. “We fully support him. His case is certainly being raised in individual conversations and will spill out into the open at some point.”

Martin adds that it appears not all parts of the government are on the same page. “On one side, you have the KP office, trying to work within the tripartite nature of the KP,” he says. “On the other side, the generals are pursuing a personal vendetta against someone who has embarrassed them.”

Angola was one of the original conflict-diamond countries, and it has made many strides since its civil war ended. Its bid to chair the KP in 2014 proved surprisingly uncontroversial—considering the country’s mixed record on human rights in its diamond fields and the failure of a prior bid. Martin points to a repatriation last year conducted with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as one thing that made NGOs hopeful. Angola “has made a lot of efforts in accepting the faults that people have pointed out before—including some of the things that Rafael has talked about,” he says.

Which brings us around to those charges. Most of what has reported involves corruption and non-rebel violence, both of which arguably fall outside the KP charter (however one feels about that). Yet if the industry in Angola is as uncontrolled as Marques portrays, that could land within the KP’s scope and suggest the country’s diamond industry requires greater examination. 

It all adds up to embarrassment for Angola—and quite possibly, the certification scheme that it now heads.  

JCK News Director