Will the next Nicky Oppenheimer please stand up
Should the recent conviction of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor for war crimes be seen as the last word on blood diamonds, or a moment to take note of how the diamond industry has been caught offside by new forms of violence that threaten once again to taint a “girl’s best friend”? It’s a question the World Diamond Council, the industry group created in 2000 to address the problem of conflict diamonds, needs to ask as it gathers next week in Vicenza, Italy, for its annual meeting.
Early indications are the WDC would prefer to forego any serious reflection in favour of yet another in a string of self-congratulatory moments. One of the highlights of the meeting will be feting outgoing De Beers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer for his efforts to eradicate the trade in conflict diamonds in the late 1990s. It will be an appropriate accolade. As warlords like Charles Taylor and Angola's Jonas Savimbi wreaked chaos and mayhem in civil wars funded by the illicit trade in rough diamonds, Oppenheimer was one of the first industry members with the foresight and courage to see the moral and economic imperative of rooting out the trade of blood diamonds. He used his position to help create the Kimberley Process—the international mechanism that regulates the trade in rough diamonds—and infamously declared that conflict diamonds should be kicked into the gutter where they belong. For a while it worked, but no longer.
The problem for the WDC is that the world, and criminality, have moved on since the KP was created a decade ago. The main perpetrators of violence in the diamond industry today are no longer rebel movements, but government forces and private security companies. The worst examples are Zimbabwe and Angola, where symbiotic relationships between private companies and political elites (too often with a connection to liberation era generals) have led to violent episodes that have left hundreds dead.
While Oppenheimer deserves his moment of recognition, this is no time for the WDC to rest on his laurels. Its members are split on current efforts to reform the KP, including the most important issue of all: redefining what constitutes a conflict diamond. The best they have been able to offer is that the KP should explicitly recognize human rights. That’s a bit like recognizing nightfall: it carries absolutely no weight. It is the definition of conflict diamonds that underpins the KP’s ability to act decisively in the face of unacceptable and criminal behaviour; to censure, to demand improvement, and, if needed, bar a country’s diamonds from the international market. The WDC must look beyond the current outdated definition, which concerns itself only with rebel armies, and embrace one proposed by the United States, the current chair of the KP: “Conflict diamonds are rough diamonds used to finance, or otherwise are directly related to, armed conflict or other situations of violence.”
For industry this should be a no-brainer: there can be no upside to looking the other way to violence anywhere in the diamond supply chain. Of course, a wider definition of conflict diamonds will demand greater accountability and transparency from the industry. But it’s in industry’s interest not to fight this. In addition to being the right thing to do, it would provide more clarity and guidance to industry and governments on what is simply not acceptable, and how to respond to systemic rights violations. Ambiguity favours only the violator. As the long and divisive debates around abuses in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields have shown, failure to act undermines the KP, and demonstrates an indifference to abuse. This is in no one’s interests, least of all industry.
A tougher definition would also re-situate the KP in the modern realities and debates about best practices in responding to conflict minerals. Corporate responsibility has changed in the last decade and if cell phone and computer companies—both of which rely on other high value and conflict prone minerals like coltan—can accept such a definition, the diamond industry can hardly claim exceptionalism. As important, this is about the industry protecting its brand. To dismiss this issue is to return to the 1990s when diamonds were inextricably associated with, and tainted by, death and corruption.
To be sure, the WDC is not alone. Governments need to endorse and enforce a new definition as well. But in many countries, the impetus for this will come from unequivocal WDC support for a tougher definition. India, for example, where 92 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished, would be forced to get on board if it wants to protect its supply. For the WDC to do nothing at its upcoming meeting in Vicenza—just like a decision to do something—is to make a choice. If its members leave Vicenza having done nothing, it will be seen as a vote to ignore, and thus condone human rights abuse in the diamond industry.
Clearly, it’s time for the next Nicky Oppenheimer to stand up and be counted.
Alan Martin is Director of research at Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), an organization that focuses on issues relating to natural resource governance, conflict, and human rights. In 2003 PAC was co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work exposing links between conflict and diamonds in several African countries.
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