The Kimberley Process Meeting: Great? Disappointing? Or Kind of Both?

Is it possible for a list of accomplishments to be both impressive and underwhelming?

Take what happened at the Kimberley Process Plenary this year. This has to be one of the most impressive Plenaries ever, with the U.S. piling up quite a tally of achievements. Look at the final communiqué; all the decisions take six pages. An administrative support mechanism! More regular review visits! A discussion of small scale mining!

And yet, at the final press conference, the NGO representative, Alan Martin of Partnership Africa Canada, was full of complaints. He was in fact so negative that Gillian Milovanovic, the normally NGO-sympathetic KP chair, seemed a bit peeved.

Like so much of the Kimberley Process, it depends on how you look at things. For instance, it’s long been an article of faith that the Kimberley Process would run far better if it was backed up by an administrative support mechanism (ASM). At last year’s Plenary, all the gathered countries agreed in principle that one should be established. And yet, much of the year was spent arguing over just who should run the thing. 

Finally, the World Diamond Council emerged as the most-popular choice. But even the WDC’s application was nearly road-blocked, when the Russian delegate voted no at the last moment, citing fears about possible conflicts of interest. Only fevered last minute lobbying from WDC chair Eli Izhakoff got him to change his mind.

Now, this was a heroic effort by the WDC head. It was commendable. And utterly thankless. Which is one of the things that drives the industry crazy. Here, the WDC chair knocks himself out to get an ASM—and the trade barely gets a smidgen of credit. Because people from the outside only see the end result, not all it took to get there. And they think: Why is an ASM such an achievement? One should have been established years ago. 

And that’s the problem with the Kimberley Process. Change will always be incredibly difficult in a forum where decisions require absolute consensus from some 80 governments. Take, for example, the KP chair’s inability to get a new conflict diamond definition. Some have called this a “failure.” But this wasn’t just a matter of adding a few words on a page. A new definition would be a major expansion of the KP’s charter, and will likely require an entirely new set of procedures. It would allow the KP to inspect the human rights records of individual countries. That is, as Izhakoff correctly put it, “revolutionary.” Enacting such a major change is a lot to ask for from an organization that took a year to approve a simple ASM.

In fact, I’ve often heard it said that it’s a miracle the KP gets anything done at all. And I don’t disagree.  But isn’t that the problem? Why is the industry wasting so much energy on an organization where accomplishing small things is such a big deal? Shouldn’t we be trying to work out these issues ourselves, instead of knocking our heads against the wall trying to win over some mid-level Russian government functionary?

When former PAC staffer Ian Smillie quit the KP, he said, “At some point you just admit to yourself that there are better things you could do with your time.” I don’t agree with anyone quitting the Process; that’s immature and counter-productive. But I can’t argue with the larger point. The Kimberley Process gathers together nations, industry, and NGOs to work cooperatively on solving problems. That makes it an amazing organization. It will also always be a frustrating, bureaucratic, and disappointing one. And the industry has to think: Maybe there are better ways to spend our time.   

People outside the industry associate the KP with the diamond business in a way that’s unfair. After all, the trade doesn’t run the thing. And yet, when confronted about the ethical issues, the industry mostly points to the KP. So its failures become our failures. And that’s why so many in the industry were on pins and needles last year when it looked like the KP might dissolve. Because there was no other alternative.

Say what you will about the RJC and the (far-from-dead) Diamond Source Protocol. They are industry-led initiatives, meant to be business-friendly. They represent the industry taking its fate in its own hands. They were done with the trade’s best interests at heart. You can argue about whether they are presently workable or not. But I have to believe if you get reasonable diamond leaders in a room, they can figure out a workable solution to chain-of-custody that will please both U.S. retailers and the middle market. If nothing else, they should be able to do it in far less time than it takes to get 80 countries to change the definition of conflict diamonds

To many KP stakeholders, none of this is news. At the press conference, Martin talked about how his group wants to press its case in alternative forums like the OECD. Even Milovanovic says the organization should be looked at as “just one star in a constellation.” Industry groups here in the U.S. have been working on their own solutions for quite some time. Yet at the same time, certain elements of the industry cling to the KP like it’s a life raft, arguing that it should be the final word on industry ethics, even as it’s become increasingly clear that’s a dead-end. 

We will always need a Kimberley Process, simply because no industry group can begin to match its scope and power. And the United States should be proud of its year at the helm at the KP. Milovanovic and company left the Process in better condition than they found it. Yet, you can also add, that may not be such an achieivement in the scheme of things. The KP has an impressive history. But, as many in the trade are starting to realize, the real future lies elsewhere.

JCK News Director