Kimberley Process at a Crossroads

After a tough two years, can the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme make the changes necessary to win back public credibility?

When people have a near-death experience, they sometimes talk about gaining a new lease on life. Perhaps the same will be true for the Kimberley Process.

It’s no secret that the conflict-diamond prevention scheme came perilously close to disintegration during its two-year deadlock over whether to allow exports from the Marange region of Zimbabwe. At one point, the organization teetered on the brink of all-out civil war, when its former chair okayed exports from Marange, in contravention of the group’s rules on consensus. At another point, South Africa imported blocked Marange goods, in what many viewed as a violation of the rules.

Finally, in November 2011, after a two-year blockade, the 76 nations that make up the Kimberley Process struck a deal to permit Marange exports. Immediately afterward, the United States—intending to pursue a reform agenda—was approved as the next KP chair. Still, Zimbabwe’s critics weren’t happy—and founding NGO Global Witness soon quit the scheme in disgust.

But today, the talk is all about moving forward. America holds the top spot for only a year, and it starts at something of a disadvantage since it didn’t fill the vice chair role the previous year, as is traditional (prior to the resolution of the Marange impasse, Zimbabwe blocked the chair’s appointment). Perhaps because of that, the United States is going all out in its year at the helm: In January, it appointed experienced ambassador Gillian Milovanovic its first full-time chair. (She’s also its first female chair.) Milovanovic is maintaining an unusually high public profile for a KP leader, doing numerous interviews and hosting the group’s first-ever Web chat last March.

Most people assumed the United States would push for big changes as KP chair, but Milovanovic has struck a more measured tone since taking over in February, saying the United States doesn’t want to “impose [an] agenda” but “facilitate conversation.” Even so, there are some very specific—and controversial—items that will likely dominate the June 4–7 KP Intersessional in Washington, D.C.:

•?Human rights language. This is the most politically potent reform being discussed. NGOs in particular want the KP’s definition of conflict diamonds to be expanded to include human rights abuses—it is currently limited to “diamonds sold by a rebel group, in opposition to an established government”—and for human rights language to be inserted in the KP’s core documents. The definition would set a new standard for what is a Kimberley-acceptable diamond and significantly expand the KP’s mandate. (This may also require a new U.N. resolution, and changes to certain countries’ legislation—both of which are considered possible, but time-consuming.)

A proposal for human rights language did not pass the last KP Plenary, despite endorsements from the World Diamond Council and the Civil Society Coalition (both of which are “observers”; only countries can vote). Some nations worry this kind of language may bring all sorts of peripheral political issues into the KP, from Russia’s treatment of Chechnya to Israel’s issues with the Palestinians. Yet the wording will likely specify that the abuses must be directly related to diamond extraction and trading.

What could be covered are situations where governments use excessive force against illegal diamond ­miners—as ­happened in Zimbabwe in 2008 and has been periodically reported in Angola over the last decade. In fact, according to Partnership Africa Canada, Angola was one of four countries—the others were China, India, and ­Russia—standing in the way of human rights language at the plenary. (Changes require absolute consensus.) This reform’s fate depends on whether those four countries can be persuaded to change their positions.

•?Administrative support. The likeliest change is instituting what used to be called a secretariat and is now dubbed an “administrative support mechanism.” These terms basically mean “people to run things.” Despite its considerable scope and power, the Kimberley Process has no real staff. All authority rests with the chair,  which rotates from year to year. Many feel the lack of continuity hinders the KP’s effectiveness.

Courtesy of
NGOs want to strengthen the system of warranties governing the trade in polished diamonds.

For a practical example, the group’s website was in what Milovanovic called “a frightful state” before 2012. In March, the United States gave it a makeover, with more up-to-date information and even a blog. But without administrative support, Milovanovic admitted, there is no guarantee this will continue once the United States leaves.

The last plenary, in Jerusalem, agreed in principle to establish some sort of administrative mechanism. A committee is now working on a specific proposal that would require re-approval by the KP. Thorny issues include where the function will be based and who will fund it. Still, one NGO activist calls this “low-hanging fruit” as far as reforms go. And Milovanovic said in her Web chat that she sees administrative reform as a “significant goal” of her chairmanship.

•?Changes to the voting process. If anything underlies all the KP’s woes—from the deadlock over Marange to its inability to pass reforms—it’s the voting procedures. Decisions at the Kimberley Process require 100 percent agreement among all participants. “Anything you have to pass at the KP is extremely difficult because you need consensus between 76 governments,” laments World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff. “Just one person can say, ‘I have to check back with my government,’ and then it doesn’t pass.”

There has been talk about replacing the arrangement with a “super-majority” (say, three-quarters approval) system, but, not surprisingly, there is no consensus on this either. “One school of thought is that [absolute consensus] is something that is cumbersome [and] difficult to achieve,” Milovanovic said in her Web chat. “Another school of thought is that, yes, all that may be true. But once you actually have achieved that consensus, you have true buy-in [from every country] and you’re not going to have difficulties in implementation.” She added that the KP is looking at ways to handle this, including the possibility of a steering committee to guide things.

•?The industry’s system of warranties. While the industry and NGOs agree on most of the above reforms, the two sides part company on whether to strengthen the industry’s system of warranties, which governs how rough and polished are traded.

Most of JCK’s readers are likely familiar with this system: It’s why invoices come stamped with the note, “The diamonds herein invoiced have been purchased from legitimate sources not involved in funding conflict and in compliance with United Nations resolutions.” The NGOs have slammed the current ­system as “inadequate” and called for one with greater outside monitoring. Members of the diamond trade counter that their plan does indeed include third-party verification—a firm’s auditors must reconcile the warrants at the end of the year. However, it is not clear how many diamond companies and retailers follow the requirements to the letter. Milovanovic suggested to JCK this is something the industry could “work on, perhaps in the area of further educating all those in the supply chain.”

Courtesy of
A point of contention for NGOs is what constitutes a Kimberley-acceptable diamond.

Many of these issues will be discussed both at this month’s meeting and the plenary in November. (Due to a quirk of U.S. budgeting, the State Department has no money set aside for these events. So for the last few months, the WDC has been raising funds from industry members. As a result, the U.S.-hosted meetings will be the first KP gatherings with paid sponsorships.) 

Some observers are pessimistic about what can be accomplished: There are a lot of issues on the table, not much time to work through them—and all with an organization that’s proved resistant to change in the past. Even Milovanovic has warned not to expect miracles; she considers these efforts a two-year process, counting South Africa’s year as KP head in 2013 (the KP’s 10th anniversary). But Izhakoff sees hope on the horizon. “The new KP chair has really been reaching out, building consensus,” he says. “We believe she can rebuild the trust that has been missing in the last two years.”

For the diamond business, the stakes remain high: NGOs like Partnership Africa Canada warn that if substantial progress isn’t made soon, other groups will reconsider their participation in the KP. That could further damage the certification scheme’s image—and, along with it, the industry’s. “If the KP squanders this opportunity, it will be left with a bigger question,” PAC warned in its recent newsletter. “If no reform, then what?”

For all the latest Kimberley Process news, follow Rob Bates’ Cutting Remarks blog.