Out of Africa: Where the Trouble for the Diamond Trade Is Now

>Amid a flurry of media attention, British supermodel Naomi Campbell arrived at The Hague this morning to testify in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Her testimony, which concerned a number of small, rough diamonds that she is alleged to have received from Taylor in September of 1997 (Campbell described the stones in court as "very small, dirty-looking stones"), has briefly returned world attention back to the shady underworld of the illicit diamond trade. (For a full summary of Campbell's role in the case, see our coverage from earlier this week.)

Yet despite being rehashed in court and dramatized in film, the ugly problem of conflict diamonds has not yet been relegated to the dustbin of history. Ten years after a coalition of industry, government, and civil society forces gathered in Kimberley, South Africa to reform an increasingly chaotic and noxious diamond trade, irregularities continue to plague the industry. And the effectiveness of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), established to eliminate conflict diamonds from the market, is still being debated.

The most recent high-profile challenge to the Kimberley Process's legitimacy was sparked by a government massacre of diamond miners in Zimbabwe in 2008. After months of fierce internal debate over whether the African country should be expelled from the ranks of the Kimberley Process nations, a tentative agreement was reached in July of this year that will allow Zimbabwe to export a limited number of diamonds while KPCS representatives continue to monitor the mines. A review mission is due to arrive next week in Harare.

Reactions to the compromise have been mixed. "What Zimbabwe understood is that they got what they wanted: to export diamonds right now," argued Ian Smillie, an architect of the Kimberley Process and former representative of the Ottawa-based human rights NGO Partnership Africa Canada. "A number of governments won't play this game much longer. Either the Kimberley Process has to shape up, or it will collapse."

Yet Cecilia Gardner, legal counsel for the World Diamond Council, the coalition that represents the diamond industry in the Kimberley Process, believes that Zimbabwe's pledge to clean up its mines is a sign of the KPCS's success. "We were able to get Zimbabwe to commit to a great deal of improvement in order to stay within the Kimberley Process," she noted. "The United Nations, international organizations, they have not been able to get Zimbabwe to commit. But the Kimberley Process has."

Yet Zimbabwe is not the only trouble spot in the industry. While irregularities or abuses have been reported in the diamond trade in countries as disparate as Lebanon, Guyana, and Côte d'Ivoire, Smillie argues that it is Venezuela--a country more often associated with oil than gems--that poses one of the most significant threats to the Kimberley Process today.

Chavez's government stopped issuing Kimberley Process certificates in 2005, and in 2008, amidst mounting criticism, Venezuela decided to pre-empt expulsion and simply self-suspend from the monitoring scheme for a period of two years. That two-year deadline is set to expire this November, and thus far Venezuela has made little effort to reform its mining industry and rejoin the international monitoring process. Chavez's government has declared publicly that the nation has suspended its diamond mining efforts, and yet it has simultaneously continued to renew mining licenses within the country.

One hundred percent of Venezuela's diamonds are now being smuggled out through neighboring countries, primarily Guyana and Brazil, where they are given false certificates and sold on the open market. Without access to Venezuela's diamond mines, reports Partnership Africa Canada campaign director Nadim Kara, the international community has no way of monitoring for irregularities and abuses. "We don't know what's going on," Kara explained. "It's really this black hole."

There have been discussions recently about the possibility of reforming the Kimberley Process, improving its oversight capabilities and allowing the monitoring scheme to respond to delinquent nations more quickly and effectively. Smillie has recommended that decisions be made by a majority or two-thirds vote, rather than by consensus, and that independent, third-party monitoring be established in lieu of peer reviews.

"It's difficult to have reforms--you need consensus, which makes it tough," explained World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff, who has served in his position for over a decade. "But we have to move on. Times have changed."

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Christina Koningisor is a writer based in New Haven.

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