Interview with Ian Smillie: Why He’s Ditching the Kimberley Process

About two weeks ago, Chaim Even-Zohar broke the news that Ian Smillie had “quietly” left the Kimberley Process. Since then, Smillie’s departure has been anything but quiet – leading to a good deal of media coverage; I particularly liked what Vinod had to say. 

I have the same high regard for Ian just about everyone else involved in these issues has, and I spoke to him yesterday because I wanted to get a couple of things clear in my mind. One story mentioned he was leaving his NGO Partnership Africa Canada. He is, but that’s because his main portfolio there was diamonds. He still will be involved in the Diamond Development Initiative (more on that in a bit.) And PAC will still be involved in the KP. 

Smillie  isn’t leaving the KP because, as some would have it, he considers it worthless; in fact, at one point, he told me he “didn’t want to damage the KP.” What he does want is a Process that takes firmer action on non-compliant countries or ones with troublesome diamond industries; that list now includes Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Guinea.  His main beef is with the governments that control the KP, not the industry – though he thinks the industry needs to “take the lead” on these issues and pressure governments to push for sterner action. But I’ll let him explain all that …

Here are excerpts from our conversation …

On Venezuela: There are some obvious failings in the Kimberley Process internal controls in some countries. With Venezuela, they pretended they had a good solution to the problem [expelling Venezuela].  Instead they have openly condoned diamond smuggling. Diamonds are still being dug and being sold in Venezuela. You only have to go to border towns to see it.

On Zimbabwe: With Zimbabwe, the government of South Africa is really protective of the Mugabe regime. But it isn’t just them. The Russians say this is not a human rights organization. But what is it exactly supposed to be? It’s there to protect people against conflict diamonds. Some governments are placing their small regional political interests over the interest of the diamond industries. Others in the region just hope that people won’t care.

On Guinea: Chaim wrote that the exports from Guinea makes no sense. I looked at the statistics and he was right. But the issues just go on the working group merry-go-round with nobody really willing to bite the bullet and do something. These issues have been talked about for years. There was a review visit to Guinea last year and a report still is not done. What is going on?  In the meantime there has been a coup and diamond exports have increased by 500%. I know enough to know that diamond exports just don’t increase 500%.

On the industry: The industry has been supportive [on these issues] but it hasn’t led. If the industry really wants the KP to work, it has to lead. The same with countries that diamonds are very important to – Israel, Botswana, Russia. These countries are going to have to push to make things work.

On the KP in general: The Kimberley Process can work. It should be able to work. The problem is the willingness to make it work. We are spending most of our time patrolling country roads for jay walkers and ignoring the criminals operating openly downtown in front of us.

Partnership Africa Canada will still be involved in the KP. Perhaps they will be more strident. But [for himself], you can only do this for so long and convince yourself that you are having an impact. At some point you just admit to yourself that there are better things you could do with your time. The NGOs are not there to pretend a system that’s not working, is.  At least that’s not why I’m there. 

On a happier note, Smillie was a lot more upbeat about the Diamond Development Initiative, which he remains chairman of. One of the projects he is excited about is the idea of “Development Diamond Standards.”

The idea is, the DDI would develop standards [for artisanal mining], environmentally and from a labor point of view. They wouldn’t be super draconian but people could be sure that the diamonds they were getting were produced fairly and cleanly enough, and they knew where they were coming from. There would have to be some kind of third party monitoring, and then you would get the certain kind of label.

The idea is that companies that want to act ethically would ask for these certificates. This is a similar idea to “Fair Trade Diamonds,” but Smillie said that generally involves “organizing people into cooperatives,” something which has to be done on a small scale.  Fair Trade groups have also pointed to problems to making the concept work with unorganized groups of diggers. He notes that while big companies like Rio Tinto, De Beers and BHP already probably pass most standards, this is meant to be more open, work on a large scale, and include artisanal miners.

JCK News Director