We’re not very optimistic that the Kimberley Process (KP), the international diamond certification scheme, can still be turned around. When the KP decided last November to lift the partial ban on Zimbabwean diamonds, its credibility sagged to a new and embarrassing low point. It’s hard to believe, but diamonds from Zimbabwe tainted by torture, rape, slave labor, and political corruption now receive “conflict free” certification from the KP.
At this point, is there any reason to be hopeful about the KP? Not really, but we do see one potential glimmer of hope. Every year, a different country among the 75 nations comprising the KP assumes leadership responsibility. It happens that the United States holds this leadership baton in 2012. The U.S. and Europe are the strongest voices in the KP for building a more robust diamond certification system. With the U.S. leading the KP, it may have a small chance to steer the KP in a different direction.
So far, the signs are encouraging that the U.S. will at least try. The Obama administration has chosen Gillian Milovanovic, an experienced diplomat and a former U.S. Ambassador to Mali and Macedonia, to lead the KP as Chair. Milovanovic seems to be making the right moves. In her first month on the job, she publicly indicated that she wants to tackle the KP’s most fundamental flaw – its narrow definition of “conflict diamond.” “One of the things which will certainly be looked at and which we certainly support looking at and believe should get a close look is whether that [conflict diamond] definition is still sufficiently encompassing or appropriate given today’s challenges,” she recently told CNN, using careful diplomatic language.
If Milovanovic is successful in changing the KP’s “conflict diamond” definition, that could be a very big deal. Under the KP, the only diamonds that count as “conflict diamonds” are those used by rebel movements to fund civil wars against national governments. This narrow definition is one reason why the KP has proven so toothless. With an uncertain mandate to tackle human rights abuses and corruption – problems which often occur outside the a civil war context – the KP ignores most of the ethical abuses tied to diamond mining. The definition may be one reason why the KP has allowed Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s brutal dictator, to use slave labor in Zimbabwe’s diamond fields and to steal his country’s diamond wealth.
There’s also another, less appreciated, negative consequence stemming from the KP’s narrow definition of “conflict diamond.” Such a narrow definition means that very few diamonds technically qualify as conflict diamonds – even though the diamond industry, in reality, is rife with problems such as violence, corruption, child labor, and environmental degradation. And this means that major companies in the diamond industry are able to spread what we at Brilliant Earth call the 1% myth – the assertion that conflict diamonds make up less than 1% of the world diamond supply. This claim misleads consumers about the high prevalence of ethical abuses in diamond mining and deflates consumer pressure for meaningful change.
Broadening the definition of “conflict diamond” could strengthen the KP’s ability to tackle Zimbabwe-type situations, while helping put an end to the 1% myth. But it won’t be easy. The U.S. will only be KP Chair for a year. In addition, the KP makes decisions by consensus, meaning that a small number of countries could torpedo any definition change. An expanded definition also would raise difficult questions regarding Zimbabwe. We have to wonder whether the KP, after approving Zimbabwean diamonds, would so quickly turn around and adopt a definition that might require it to ban those diamonds once again.
Still, as long as the U.S. holds the KP reins, we hope it will push as hard and as skillfully as it can to broaden the “conflict diamond” definition. We’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong about the KP’s commitment to creating a more ethical diamond industry.