The Kimberley Process, the international body that is supposed to stop the trade in conflict diamonds, has banned diamond exports from the Central African Republic. The decision comes after a rebel coalition overthrew the country’s dictator, Francois Bozizé, in March.
Is the ban a good idea? Maybe, because it is unclear whether the new government is very committed to democracy or human rights. Although the new government says it favors democratic rule, it has given itself three more years to hold elections. Human Rights Watch also reports that rebel soldiers committed grave human rights violations – executions, rape, torture, and pillaging – when seizing power. Perhaps it is a good idea to ban the country’s diamonds as a way of nudging the new government onto a responsible path. In 2010, the Central African Republic got about 10 percent of its government revenue from diamond mining, so the ban could hurt the government’s finances.
Still, there are reasons to be skeptical about the diamond ban, starting with the fact that the ban won’t actually halt the country’s diamond sales. The ban means that the 80 countries belonging to the KP must try not to import the Central African Republic’s diamonds. But the KP, for many years, has also banned diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire, a country in West Africa; those diamonds just get smuggled out of Côte d’Ivoire anyway, and then get mixed into the global diamond supply. Until the diamond industry develops a better system for tracking diamonds – meaning that every diamond will be traceable to a mine or country of origin, just like Brilliant Earth’s – KP diamond bans won’t work very well.
The ban also raises questions about the KP’s criteria for banning diamonds. Why the Central African Republic – and why now? The KP’s core purpose is quite limited. Under the KP’s definition, the only diamonds that count as “conflict diamonds” are diamonds that fund rebel groups seeking to overthrow national governments. (A diamond could be tainted by government violence or mined using child labor and the KP would call it “conflict free.”) But rebels in the Central African Republic have long used diamonds to finance their insurgency – and the KP has done nothing. By the KP’s own standards, this diamond ban seems late; the rebels have already won and are no longer rebels.
The real issue, however, is not the timing of the KP’s ban but its outdated definition of “conflict diamonds.” That definition is an artifact of the diamond wars of the 1990s, when rebel soldiers used diamonds to finance bloody civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries. But today, the focus on rebel financing is slightly misplaced. In the Central African Republic, the rebels took power from Bozizé, who himself took power in a coup in 2003 and had a poor human rights record. It is unclear why the KP ought to treat the new rebel government so differently from the authoritarian government it replaced. Moreover, there are other countries – such as Angola and Zimbabwe – where governments are killing people in the name of diamonds or stealing diamond revenue. Kimberley Process action in these countries might be more worthwhile.
Why, then, did the KP choose to ban diamonds from the Central African Republic? The reasons are likely political. When the rebels took over, the Central African Republic and its diamond industry became world news. The KP came under intense pressure to do something.
In addition, the country only produces about $60 million in rough diamonds per year, or 0.4% of the rough diamond supply. It is much easier, politically, to ban diamonds from a small diamond producer like the Central African Republic than a major supplier like Zimbabwe. This may be because banning diamonds from a small producer gives the appearance of action, without disturbing a diamond industry myth – the misleading claim that more than 99% of diamonds are “conflict free.” Together with diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire, which make up just 0.2% of the diamond supply, the grand total of banned “conflict diamonds” is still just 0.6% of the diamond supply. (But this statistic is misleading because it doesn’t account for all the diamonds tainted by violence, corruption, and labor and environmental abuses including child labor.)
We’re critical of the KP, but what do we want it to do? We believe, first of all, that the KP needs to help build transparency in the diamond supply chain and perhaps a system for tracking diamonds. Without better controls, its diamond bans won’t have their intended effect. We also think that the criteria for banning rough diamonds shouldn’t be whether diamonds are financing a rebellion – or whether banning those diamonds would interfere with the diamond industry’s marketing claims. The criteria, at minimum, should be whether rough diamonds production is tied to violence or grave human rights violations – regardless of whether the perpetrators are rebel soldiers, government officials, or private companies.