Can the Kimberley Process Be Saved?

As the debate dragged on over whether the Kimberley Process should authorize diamond shipments from the Marange region of Zimbabwe, one argument in favor was: If this issue finally gets settled—after paralyzing the Process for two years—the way will be cleared for the United States to become the chair in 2012 and institute much-needed reforms. As World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff put it: “The stage is now set for the U.S. to do some good things.” 

Now, the United States has become the KP chair, and it’s safe to say the hopes could not be higher. 

In our interview Tuesday, new KP chair Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic came across like the seasoned diplomat she is, scrupulously avoiding endorsing specific ideas on how to improve the KP, preferring instead to say future decisions will be left to “consensus.” The State Dept. has even put up a questionnaire so participants and observers can give their views. 

But of course, the State Dept., which sponsored her appointment, has ideas about how to improve the KP, as does just about everyone involved. Yet the tone she set is important; KP participants are well aware that the whole world isn’t pleased with them. What’s been missing is someone with the diplomatic skills to spark real change. 

Still, no reforms are a sure bet, at this point—and even Milovanovic stressed that she sees this as a two-year process, counting South Africa’s upcoming year at the helm. But there is a lot on the table, including the following:

– The most important, politically loaded reform is so-called human rights language, which many consider an expansion of the KP’s mandate, and would make it a lot more relevant to current-day concerns. The industry has already agreed to human rights language that could be inserted into the KP “core documents.”

Now what the industry agreed to is not necessarily the exact same thing as officially redefining “conflict diamonds” to include human rights abuses; that is also being looked at, but from what I understand, that would be a far more ambitious undertaking, which could involve getting the approval of the United Nations, and rewriting some countries’ legislation. (Not that those things would be impossible. But they would take time.)  

Talking with different sources on this, it is not clear which would be a better—or more effective—option. In any case, adopting this kind of language, assuming it is not too watered down, could conceivably set a new minimum standard for what is a Kimberley-acceptable diamond, and no longer draw what many consider a silly distinction between government-sponsored and rebel-sponsored violence. It could apply to some of the issues in Angola, assuming the problems there are verified. It would likely not involve any current issues with Zimbabwe—all the media reports to the contrary—but certainly would have been relevant during the government crackdown in 2008. (And it’s worth noting, even without that language, Marange exports were still halted for over two years.)

In the past, a handful of countries have objected to any type of human rights language, with some wanting assurances that all sorts of peripheral issues won’t be pulled in (i.e., the United States/Guantanamo Bay, Israel/Palestine, etc.). As the wording specifies that these abuses have to be directly linked to diamond mining (and possibly trading), these concerns will likely be pacified. Still, while this is a much-need reform, it might take a while.                  

– Probably the most likely change to come about—though, sadly, it’s not a lock—is instituting a Secretariat, or what is now called an “administrative function.” The Kimberley Process currently has no real staff; all the authority basically rests with the chair. One mining executive who has experience with both the KP and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) once told me that the latter runs so much better, because it actually has some administrative backup.

Last year, the KP Plenary agreed in principle to establish some sort of administrative function. Still, this is not a done deal. A proposal still has to be approved, and voted on. That plan would have to answer certain not-so-easy questions. Like, where should this function be based? How many people should it employ? And who should pay for it? The industry? Diamond consumers? The U.S. taxpayer? Other countries’ taxpayers? Still, as reforms go, this is, as one source termed it, “low hanging fruit.”          

– Other reforms include possible changes to the voting process, so that not everything has to be ratified by absolute consensus. This would certainly speed thing up; it even would have ended the Marange blockade sooner, something most of those on the “reform” side wouldn’t have been too crazy about.  Even so, this particular change could open a pretty big can of worms, and seems like a long shot.

Other ideas include scrapping the current “peer review” monitoring, so monitoring missions could be conducted by an independent third party. This would avoid situations like the 2010 Marange review mission, which some participants seem to go into with already-formulated opinions. In fact, if there is a common thread to many of the suggestions, it’s that, as someone put it to me, the KP needs to be “de-politicized.” The fight over Zimbabwe turned into a battle of the West versus Africa. The NGOs and others have talked about instituting a KP “rule book”—where very specific standards are spelled out, and everyone knows what is being asked of them. That makes sense.

(Speaking of de-politicization, I’ve heard it suggested—and not just from people you’d expect—that Global Witness’ departure from the KP, while it hurt the scheme’s image immeasurably, may actually improve the prospects for meaningful change. Global Witness, for all its strong points, is fundamentally an “advocacy” group. And the KP needs participants focussed on solving problems.)

One thing to keep in mind: the KP is a work-in-progress. “Process” is part of its name. The Zimbabwe blockade-turned-deadlock was an embarrassment, and its eventual resolution left a lot of people angry, but the KP had never faced an issue like that before. One reason policy makers remain so enamored with the KP is that it is kind of a mini–United Nations, where countries work together to tackle problems. It doesn’t have many analogous models—the EITI is one—and there has always been the sense that its rules were being made up as they went along. If all of us—and the Kimberley Process—are around 10 years from now, we might be discussing reforms of the current reforms.

Still, I do sense some renewed energy around the Kimberley Process. No one wants to let their expectations get out of control­—like the real United Nations, the KP can be exasperatingly slow. But for now everyone hopes this important initiative will once again begin to move forward, after two years stuck in the mud.

JCK News Director