Category Archives: NGO

Opaque not pure: Global Witness and the Kimberley Process

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In December 2011, Global Witness left the Kimberley Process with a shouting letter from the NGO’s chairman: “The Kimberley Process’s refusal to evolve and address the clear links between diamonds, violence and tyranny has rendered it increasingly outdated”, writes Charmian Gooch in the press statement on the NGO’s webpage. She then goes on to list all the failings of the Kimberley process, from governments who have used violent means to extract diamonds to companies who haven’t put in place decent labour conditions for miners and are benefitting from the violent coercion of governments. This all sounds very right and righteous. Obviously, a NGO which is supposed to monitor the good practices of an agreement must withdraw if it esteems that these good practices are not kept to. There is only one hitch in Mrs Gooch’s outrage; it was never the objective of the Kimberley process to restrict governments or government licenced companies to brutally exploit diamond mines. Actually, it was never the violence of diamond mining as such that was at stake but only violent mining by some, namely those which were in standard narratives of international agencies and Western governments labelled as “rebel” or even “terrorists” (and which keep being reproduced for instance in the Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia, see my post). Those “rebels” were those, who deprived both, governments and big international companies from huge profits, and it is this the only reason why they agreed to the Kimberley Certification Scheme.

The program of certifying diamonds had been started on the distinction of legitimate and illegitimate diamonds (see for instance here), and all UN resolutions, whether of the General Assembly or the Security Council, whether on Angola or Sierra Leone, argue that certificates shall stop “conflict diamonds” or “rebel diamonds”. Never, anywhere, was diamond trade as such in question! The foundation document of the Kimberley Certification Scheme is even more explicit: “CONFLICT DIAMONDS means rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. The Certification Scheme was never about the methods of mining, the fairness of governmental concessions, labor rights or the like but solely about the question who has the right to exploit diamond mines. And the answer is unambiguous: governments and the companies concessioned by them. By the fiat of this text, those governments additionally become “legitimate governments” although one could believe that the shere fact of having a major rebellion in the country could mean that these governments are anything but legitimate.

The entire logic of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is, in an essential and fundamental way, built upon two constitutive beliefs. First, an absolutely unquestioned liberal belief that the diamond industry is an industrial activity, which is as legitimate as any industry and ultimately creating wealth for a larger group than solely the immediate stakeholders, i.e. that the diamond industry will benefit the country in question (as illustrated in a number of overly optimistic reports of Western development agencies like DFID or USAID). In this belief mining is the exact contrary of that activitiy which, by its very conception, can only exist because it brutally exploits people and the environment for the sole and exclusive benefit of a couple some. Yet, mining was not beneficial for those countries  before the wars and there is little reason to believe that it would be so after. Diamonds have little, or actually no use value. The only reason people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them, is that they have become pricy tokens for “eternal love” as they symbolize rarity, purity and exclusiveness.  However, diamonds are, in fact, abundant and they are, contrary to other mineral resources, easy to produce as large quantities can be found on the surface and do not need large upfront costs of prospection. It often needs only a shovel and sieve to dig for diamonds. Consequently, diamond traders have a strong, indeed a very strong interest to control the quantity of diamonds available on the market in order to artificially create scarcity– this is what De Beers has understood very early on, and why they have in fact built up a powerful cartel through which they control the entire chain from production to polishing passing by several stages of trading. Although De Beers has lost market shares to competitors over the past 20 years, they still control the large majority of the market and have kept the number of competitors low. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is a formidable tool to exclude potential competitors from the big deal. Additionally, the huge profit margins of several 1000% percent in the diamond industry are only possible if all costs at the very beginning of the production chain remain significantly low. Diamond miners in Africa are paid commonly between 1 and 4 US Dollars per day…A 1-carat engagement ring at Tiffany‘s is sold for anything up from 9,000US Dollars. Obviously, it would be a pity to loese those formidable profits just for some labor rights or environmental protection costs…

The second necessary belief is the conception that the civil wars in those countries — Angola and Sierra Leone foremost, but also Liberia, Congo and others — were not political struggles which were caused by social grievances but in any respect “diamond-fuelled” as Charmian Gooch herself asserts — the “greed” wars that World Bank economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler had fuzzed about in the 1990s (and whose oh-so statistic proves have been, nowadays and luckily, widely disavowed even by their fellow positivist friends); as they claimed,  the wars were not financed by diamonds, they were basically and firstly fought for diamonds. Yet, as many area experts have already pointed out during the wars, “greed” has, if ever, been only a marginal motive. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone emphasizes (a quote worthy to be reproduced in full lenght): “There is a widely held belief in the western world that the conflict in Sierra Leone was initiated and perpetuated because of diamonds, the country’s most important mineral resource. According to this version, the RUF, backed by Charles Taylor and the NPFL, initiated an armed rebellion in Sierra Leone to gain control of its diamond resources. In the years following the initial attack, it is alleged, the proceeds from an illicit diamond trade enabled the RUF to finance its war effort through the purchase of weapons abroad. In the Commission’s view, this version of the conflict is simplistic. It fails to capture numerous complexities, the reasons for the decay of the state in Sierra Leone and the role minerals played prior to and during the conflict. It also does not reflect what unfolded on the ground in Sierra Leone. There were multiple causes of the conflict and reasons for the involvement of Liberian and other foreign actors. Although it is true that the RUF partly financed its war effort through diamond trafficking, diamonds did not yield significant revenues for the movement before 1997.”

Rather these countries had been caught in complex social conflicts, which had been fuelled by a large variety of sources, not least by the agendas of third states like the former colonial powers, neighbouring states or the US. Ironically, one of motives in these wars has been, at least in Sierra Leone, the fury of young men and women who had been brutally exploited in a largely dysfunctional state and difficult economy (see here for this argument). Yet, if diamonds were not in any way causes of the wars but merely a way of financing them, then, of course, there is no reason to expect that a certification scheme would set an end to the conflict or to violence.

Charmian Gooch, who prides herself of the extensive research she and Global Witness did for the Kimberley Process, and her colleagues know all this, of course. So, why now this indignated hue and cry? Did they really think that this scheme would set an end to the exploitation of diamond mining or end civil wars in Africa? Difficult to believe, maybe true, and yet hardly convincing. It rather seems that this is just one more case where a NGO has found for some time an wonderful topic to build its reputation and existence with a nice cocktail of cheap morality (who would not pity diamond mining boys, whether in war or peace?), glamour (blood diamonds and Leonardo di Caprio) and pompous talks (norms and world politics), all of which needs just as little regard for what is really happening on the ground as do all those other celebrity projects like Live Aid or Angelina Jolie’s UNICEF ambassadoring. For sure, the Kimberley Process was hailed by researchers (also here) and politics alike as huge step in global corporate responsibility and the new governance of the world. Since its foundation in 1993 the organisation has grown to over 60 members and has offices around the world. Members of Global Witness were regular guests at the meetings of the World Diamond Council (which certainly were not hosted in Johannesburg’s YMCA hostel). Global Witness and Partnership for Africa were also consultants on the Hollywood blockbuster “Blood Diamond”. And Charmian Gooch was elected “Young global leader” by the World Economic Forum. All that red carpet and fame, however, have faded as media and public eyes have turned to other humanitarian horror shows and that neither child soldiering nor blood diamonds are really flashy anymore. Charmian Gooch’s sudden realization that this scheme is a bad joke now sounds like a hollow pretext to get rid of this issue which now, as the glitter has come off, is nothing but ugliness and misery.

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