Are governments also guilty of mining blood diamonds?

2013-10-24

The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KP) has been very successful in filtering ‘blood diamonds’ – those mined by rebels in war zones – out of the respectable diamond market over the last decade. But it is now under pressure to do better.

The process was set up by the diamond industry, governments and civil society under pressure from human rights activists who had threatened to lead a global boycott of diamonds because horrible rebels groups like the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and Liberia were financing their rebellions against government and atrocities against civilians, by mining diamonds and selling them into the official market. Jonas Savimbi’s perhaps less horrible but very troublesome National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) was also financing its rebellion against Angola’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government through diamonds.

But if it has largely succeeded in filtering out diamonds minded by rebels fighting legitimate governments, the KP will be under pressure to expand the definition of blood diamonds when it meets for its annual plenary next month in Johannesburg, under its current chair, South Africa.Human rights activists like Global Witness – which helped inspire the KP – are now arguing that the Process must sanction not only rebel groups but also others who have diamond blood on their hands, notably governments.

The prime example is Zimbabwe where elements of President Robert Mugabe’s government violently seized control of the Marange diamond fields from informal miners and then, allegedly, funnelled the diamond revenues into Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) coffers rather than the national fiscus.Though its mandate does not extend to such conflicts, the KP did nonetheless involve itself in the Marange controversy because of the negative publicity it generated. It sent in investigators at the invitation of the Zimbabwe government in 2011 and eventually determined that the mining of the Marange diamonds had improved enough to warrant a clean bill of health from the KP.

That decision provoked Global Witness to pull out of the KP and other human rights activists were also dismayed, protesting that the decision was a politically-inspired whitewash for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime.

The key issue of where the Marange diamond revenues went and are still going remains controversial. While he was finance minister in the coalition government which ended in July, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) finance minister Tendai Biti always insisted that little if any of the money was entering the fiscus. Others – and not only ZANU-PF and its international allies – disagreed.But leaving that aside, the question now is what are the wider implications for the KP of the Marange intervention.

At a seminar in Pretoria this week organised by the Antwerp Diamond Academy, Welile Nhlapo, the current KP chair, frankly acknowledged that by intervening in Marange, the KP had ‘set ourselves a bad and dangerous precedent to some extent’ for going beyond its mandate, which is to filter only rebel blood diamonds. Nhlapo had been berating the media and others for failing to recognise the success of the KP in cleaning up the Marange problem.Yet, ironically the KP’s very success there – at least in its own estimate – has put it on the spot to tackle other Maranges.

Nonetheless Nhlapo seemed then to be resisting pressure for the KP to broaden its mandate in that way. He warned against the KP becoming ‘over-zealous’ and trying to solve all the human rights problems of the world. The KP lacks both the mandate and capacity to do this, he argued. Many of the human rights issues that activists were demanding that the KP address were governance matters better addressed by other institutions such as the UN, he said.

And he noted the fairly widespread suspicion that those demanding that the KP mandate be extended to include governments with blood on their hands were really masking a ‘regime change’ agenda. Levy Rapoo of the ministry of mineral resources, seemed to be echoing this sentiment when he said that those demanding to know where the Marange diamond revenue is going, were ‘meddling with the sovereignty’ of Zimbabwe.

The suspicion of a regime change agenda of course came very much to the fore in the Marange case, since many African countries, including South Africa, believed Britain and other Western powers were trying to topple Mugabe at all costs.It was only because the Zimbabwe government invited the KP in that it was able to tackle the Marange issue.

But it could be argued that Nhlapo seemed to be making the perfect the enemy of the good. No doubt it is true that the KP cannot cure all the world’s human rights ills. But that is not what it is necessarily being asked to do.

The most cogent demand is more focused – that the KP should broaden its definition of blood diamonds, not to cover all of those associated with any human rights abuses, but to rough diamonds used to finance armed conflict or other violence related to diamond mining areas. That definition would have covered Marange in the earlier phase of the conflict when the military was plausibly accused of having killed many informal miners. But it would not cover the later Marange situation after the violence ended, and the question became what was happening to the diamond revenue.

So the proposed definition would probably not satisfy the likes of Global Witness. And on the other side huge political problems would no doubt erupt about how to apply even that narrower definition. But it might save the KP from the danger of dwindling credibility.

The problem with the definition as it now stands is that it tends to reinforce the suspicion that governments are simply protecting themselves. That is already a deep concern about the approach of African governments to human rights issues – for example when African Union leaders recently decided that sitting presidents should be immune from prosecution by the International Criminal Court or any other international tribunal.

Yet most observers see little prospect of the KP mandate being expanded at next month’s plenary, or anytime soon. Next year China takes over the chair and this week Belgium and South Africa agreed to support Angola’s bid to chair in 2015.Neither of those countries seem very likely to lead the charge against governments with diamond blood on their hands, to put it mildly.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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