By Khadija Sharife and Nick Meynen.
Ever since the international approval of Zimbabwean diamonds for export, the international regulatory system to prevent ‘blood diamonds’ from entering the market is broken. By allowing Zimbabwe to export diamonds mined from the Marange mine, the former chair of the Kimberley Process (KP) – Mr. Mathieu Yamba Lapfa Lambang from the Democratic Republic of Congo – has prompted a global “human rights” outcry with KP members such as Canada, the EU, and the US, claiming there was “no consensus”.
However, these countries neglect that even when you take the Zimbabwean rot out, the whole KP apple still looks like a totally rotten apple. There are many reasons for that, which have nothing to do with Mugabe or his friends, rather with the vested interests of a giant Western corporation and with blind consumerism. But let’s start with the most obvious villain.
Officially approved blood diamonds
China (the world’s fastest growing diamond consumer market) and India (which cuts and polishes 11 of 12 stones) have given green light to exploit diamonds from the Marange mine, which was described by Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti as “the biggest find of alluvial diamonds in the history of mankind”. With potential revenues pegged at $1-1.7bn annually, the support of neighbouring governments like South Africa, another major diamond producer, is almost guaranteed.
That Zimbabwe’s diamonds are mined under the direct surveillance of the country’s vicious military and controlled by brutal lifetime dictator Robert Mugabe is not in question. After the discovery of Marange’s diamonds in 2006, the government security forces took the mine by force in 2008, killing up to 150 small-scale miners in the process, by shooting from helicopters. Ever since, mass looting by political and military elites has occurred, accompanied by violent displacement and human rights violations. Wikileaks has shown the involvement of Mugabe and his wife, and the rot goes to the Head of the Central Bank, army general Constantine Chiwenga and many others.
Farai Maguwu – Zimbabwe’s most famous human rights activist – was arrested as an enemy of the state in 2010, allegedly for ‘endangering national security’ by holding information pertaining to the Zimbabwean military’s gross human rights violation at Marange’s diamond mines. Maguwu’s arrest came about when the Kimberley Process’s appointed monitor, Abbey Chikane, arranged for Maguwu to meet him at a place and time coordinated by Chikane, who happens to be a former South African diamond business magnate. He basically duped the activist.
But why did Chikane unilaterally seek to approve KP diamonds from Zimbabwe – without having a mandate to do so? And why was he not removed from his position for doing so? Similarly, why did the KP monitor endanger Zimbabwe’s primary whistle-blower, and do so with basically no repercussions from within the KP? Was the KP system – propagating that less than one per cent of global diamonds constitute “blood” minerals - built for the purposes of eliminating corporate and state-sanctioned exploitation, or normalising and sanitising it?
The KP and the imaginary world of good governments and bad rebels.
Ian Smillie, an important founder of the KP, who disengaged from the Kimberley Process in 2009, has said: “we have seen more and more examples of how criminals and diamond dealers and smugglers and even governments have been able to bypass, subvert and ignore the KPCS with almost complete impunity.”
No third-party monitoring is foreseen, internal control mechanisms are weak and technical shortcomings and corruption are everywhere. But the main reason for the failure of the KP is much deeper than lack of implementation. It’s a structural flaw.
According to the KP, “Conflict diamonds means rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. That excludes governments like Mugabe’s as being a conflict actor. This definition was largely structured around two cases: Angola’s brutal opposition movement UNITA under Jonas Savimbi and Sierra Leone’s civil war-for-resources, facilitated and backed by neighbouring Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.
But what if governments use rough diamonds to finance human rights abuses? The current chair – US ambassador Gillian Milovanovic – has set in motion a process to change the definition of a conflict diamond because “Ultimately, diamonds depend on the associations of purity and connection to positive and desirable images”. But the outcome of this process is unlikely to change the course of the KP, which is still very busy undermining the legitimacy it once created.
Global Witness, one of the founding NGOs for the KP, has withdrawn itself from the process at the end of 2011, citing the case of Marange as the most obvious evidence that the whole system is broken. A ten-year long global coalition of NGOs – Fatal Transactions – with a long history in fighting against blood diamonds has also disbanded itself. However, the need to debunk the clean diamonds myth is not less than ten years ago, rather to the contrary.
A corporation bigger than governments
Between 1992 and 1993 alone, De Beers, which controls 70 per cent of the rough diamond market, was known to have purchased between $300-500m in diamonds from UNITA – the Angolan rebels. The Fowler Report claimed that in 1999, around the time Global Witness began drawing attention to the subject, De Beers ceased purchasing diamonds directly from UNITA’s leader Savimbi or via potential third parties. The combination of a democratic South Africa and the loss of De Beers’ direct support destroyed UNITA’s political and financial foundation.
What we learn from this example is that the biggest actor in the conflict is not the rebel group or a government but a Western company. And the only way it was held from financing a conflict was through a combination of a democratic revolution and international pressure in the aftermath of investigations by pressure groups like Global Witness. But what happens when there’s no democratic revolution going on?
De Beers later just bought diamonds mined during Angola’s dictatorship, now using the certificates produced by the KP. One single western company with almost 7 billion US $ revenues in 2009 can make or break corrupt and violent regime’s, but no government can force it to stop buying from bad regimes – thanks to the KP that sanctions these flows.
In that sense, the KP seems designed not to keep blood diamonds of but on the market. De Beers simply seized the initiative as a means of distancing the company’s diamonds, which adorn engagement rings, from association with the images of drugged-up child-soldiers trained to use bush knives to hack off the arms and legs of terrorised people. But if the diamond trade is as bloody as ever and regulation doesn’t seem to work, – is there another way to address the problem?
While people may want diamonds, nobody actually needs diamonds for personal use. This much was admitted by the advertising firm NW Ayers, retained by De Beers, who created perhaps the world’s most potent luxury goods slogan: “Diamonds Are Forever”. According to Ayers, “We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology. We seek to … strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring – to make it a psychological necessity”.
In 2000, Advertising Age magazine named “A Diamond Is Forever” the best advertising slogan of the twentieth century. Diamonds are used for industrial process as well, but a large part of the diamond market is pure luxury consumption made at a heavy social and environmental cost in places like Zimbabwe and many other countries. This structural and global injustice needs fixing at different levels: from informing blind consumers to overhauling the KP completely.
This article for EJOLT is an update and reframing of an earlier article on blood diamonds by Khadija Sharife for Al Jazeera: