A post-mortem of the pullout of Global Witness from the Kimberley Process

Dec 30, 2011

The NGO Global Witness has pulled out from its association with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme for the global diamonds industry. It says it has lost confidence in the KP’s ability and willingness to stop abuses of various kinds in various diamond mining countries. Quitting the KP might be a matter of frustrated principle for Global Witness, but that arguably gives it less influence to fight the abuses the organization claims to be so passionate about.

Recently Global Witness has been particularly critical of the Zimbabwean government’s actions in the country’s new diamond fields of Marange. The most notorious case of abuse were the reports of the army killing scores of artisanal miners in the process of exerting State control over the area in 2008.

Said Director of Global Witness Charmian Gooch in a statement, “The scheme has failed three tests: It failed to deal with the trade in conflict diamonds from Ivory Coast; was unwilling to take serious action in the face of blatant breaches of the rules over a number of years by Venezuela and has proved unwilling to stop diamonds fuelling corruption and violence in Zimbabwe. Consumers should not buy Marange diamonds, and industry should not supply them.”

If Global Witness felt its concerns were not being heeded by the Kimberly Process, as a vocal part of the initiative it least still had the possibility to press for change from within. Having left the KP, it now has almost no chance of influencing the kind of internal change it says it feels is needed. The kind of political, moral and commercial pressure it may hope to exert on diamond consumers in the key Western markets may not be so easy as long as Zimbabwe has KP certification and can sell its diamonds to major non-Western markets. 

Despite the three tests cited by Gooch, it seems pretty clear that Zimbabwe’s Marange is what most rankled Global Witness. Because of the country’s notoriety in the West over hostility to the Mugabe government, controversial Marange is probably a much more effective diamonds campaign issue than any other in the world today.

The overall founding spirit of the KP may have included trying to prevent many of the issues that the Zimbabwean government is accused of at Marange. However, strictly speaking, the specific KP issue of preventing ‘conflict diamonds’ envisioned different defining conditions than those that exist at Marange.

Global Witness acknowledges this awkward conundrum in its document, ‘Marange, return of blood diamonds.’ It mentions that the UN defines blood diamonds as gems “which are used by rebel movements to finance their military activities, including attempts to undermine or overthrow legitimate governments.” Under this definition Marange diamonds are not blood diamonds, regardless of how nasty Global Witness and others feel Zimbabwe’s Mugabe government is. 

Global Witness addresses that awkward inconvenience this way: ”The founding document of the Kimberley Process clearly states participants’ determination to stamp out “systematic and gross human rights violations” associated with the diamond sector. In the case of Zimbabwe, Kimberley Process governments have not lived up to their commitment to the scheme’s founding principles, undermining both the legitimacy of the Kimberley Process and the trust placed in it by the public. If the KP is to fulfill its mandate to prevent diamond-fuelled violence and avoid irrelevance in the eyes of consumers, member states must be prepared to rapidly and effectively address situations where participants are breaking the rules.”

Clearly there has been a loophole in which the KP’s ‘founding principles’ do not necessarily exactly coincide with the group’s definition of ‘blood diamonds.’ The voting members of the KP had the discretion to lean more towards the founding principles in reaction to Marange, or to hide behind the strict definition of blood diamonds in refusing to deny certification. Global Witness and other groups would have preferred the former, while the Mugabe government and its supporters were pushing for the latter, which eventually won the day.

How many of the KP members felt confident enough about their own compliance with KP rules to go as far as denying Marange diamonds certification, or even more drastically, to suspend Zimbabwe for at least six months, as Global Witness demanded? Global Witness had every right to advocate for these measures, but was arguably naïve to believe the KP as currently structured would carry them out.

Zimbabwe is controversial, high profile and particularly emotive for some, but there are probably not many governments in the KP that can claim an intrinsic moral superiority over the Mugabe government. Sitting in judgment of that government over Marange by  denying certification or suspending its membership of the KP would be to possibly open up the diamond operations of many other member countries to scrutiny which they might not be eager to subject themselves to. In a real sense, groups like Global Witness were hoping  KP members would exert a moral authority on Zimbabwe which most of them are far from qualified to do.

In general, governments are simply not good moral agents, regardless of their rhetoric. Providing a moral voice to KP arguments is a task much better suited to organizations like Global Witness than to the constituent governments. That was actually one of the strongest arguments for a group like Global Witness to remain in the KP, despite its frustrations and despair at the seriousness of the body to reform itself and better ‘police’ its members.      

Focus on alleged army killings of poor miners at Marange was probably the most emotive, most effective means of certification opponents exerting pressure on the Mugabe government over how mining is carried out there. This was despite the difficulty of making the allegations really stick without access to Marange, plus government’s denials and the refusal to cooperate in making an open investigation possible.

But Global Witness and its partners got somewhat sidetracked into basing their opposition to Marange diamonds certification on many other grounds which only served to weaken its anti-certification position by giving an inappropriate political dimension to the issue. This simply made it easier for the Mugabe government to claim to its sympathizers and supporters in the KP and in public opinion that human rights concerns were not the main motivation of Global Witness and other opponents of Marange diamonds certification. To some effect, the Mugabe government was able to say, “It’s those Westerners opposing everything we do again because they are so sore with us about our white farmer-dispossessing land reform and other issues.”

Global Witness clearly did not fully appreciate the extent to which many African and other non-Western countries feel that the West ‘picks on’ the Mugabe government for criticism, attack and sanction to an extent far beyond its claimed ‘sins.’ 

In cataloguing what it saw as the many issues needing redress at Marange, Global Witness got into issues of claimed army and police ‘syndicates’ using forced labor to mine for them. It mentioned how the ‘off-budget’ diamond’ revenues of Marange would benefit ZANU-PF at the expense of its coalition partner the MDC. Perhaps there was/is truth to all these elements, but these are arguably local issues rather than for the KP to make any determinations about or decisions upon. None of these issues particularly strengthened the Marange anti-certification cause spearheaded by Global Witness.

The Mugabe government has already made ‘sovereignty’ a key part of its defense against Western criticisms of any sort. Instead of a foreign (and Western) outfit like Global Witness championing these local controversies, it might have been better for GW to support and help capacitate embattled local groups who are keeping watch over developments at Marange.    

In the court of public opinion, especially in the West, where the Mugabe government has such a poor image, the flouting by Global Witness of the strict KP definition of blood diamonds in the Marange case is probably considered a justified tactic in the propaganda war against what is thought of as an unacceptable regime for many other reasons. ‘Blood diamonds’ is a recognized, emotive brand that ‘good guys’ like Global Witness are allowed to use loosely if it is in a noble fight against ‘bad guys’ like the Mugabe government.

This does not change the fact that for the focus of the KP to change from abuses by rebel groups to that by sitting governments required at least a mind-set change within the KP, followed by a wider definition of what a blood diamond is.

Without that, governments like Zimbabwe’s can claim that their troops may have been over-zealous, but that they were bringing order out of chaos for the greater good of the nation. It might be a fig leaf to hide behind, but against an argument like that, there are probably not many governments in the KP that could claim to be totally ‘clean’ in regards to heavy-handed  military actions of one sort or another. It was arguably naïve of Global Witness to expect that under current KP rules, the member governments of the KP would be more robust than they were against Zimbabwe.

Another diamond realpolitiks consideration is the size of the Marange find. It is set to put Zimbabwe amongst the world’s leading diamond producers. President Mugabe had declared that whether with KP certification or without it, Zimbabwe was going to find ways of marketing its diamonds. Given their already poor relations with the Mugabe government, the Western KP members initially most closely aligned with the Global Witness position did not have many other channels of pressure to prevent Zimbabwe from carrying out its threat to flood world diamond markets even without KP certification.

Even if genuine (rather than merely political), the human rights/transparency/etc concerns of some KP member governments in regards to Marange were clearly less than the desire to keep Zimbabwe inside the body. Neither the KP nor the diamond industry in general wanted to the possibility of a major, market-upsetting ‘rogue’ producer outside it. On that basis alone the KP was only going to put so much pressure on Zimbabwe and no more, especially in light of Mugabe’s threat.    

The main and strongest point of departure of anti-Marange certification efforts were on the reported army killings of 2008. Allegations of various kinds of other abuses since then are murkier. No one claims that there continues to be systematic killing by the authorities. The claimed on-going abuses of corruption, smuggling, lack of transparency and so on are much harder for certification opponents to provide evidence of, and are not unique to Zimbabwe. They carried moral agency but were not such strong grounds for denying KP certification.

A government with nothing to hide would have accepted an investigation of the reported army killings. It could have even used such an investigation, whatever the outcome, in its favor. That the Mugabe government refused to allow such an investigation was typical of it, and gave anti-certification campaigners more short-term ammunition.

Once an investigation of the alleged army killings had been conducted and the appropriate actions transparently taken, other corrections of the situation at Marange could then have taken place with less controversy. Because there was a blanket government denial of the killings and rejection of an investigation, there remains the at least hazy perception/suspicion that killings and other abuses routinely still go on. This is certainly claimed by Global Witness and others, but in the absence of investigation and clear evidence, they remain a cloud of sinister doubt over activities at Marange, rather than a confirmed narrative of on-going blood-soaked mining.

Regardless of the exact definition of ‘blood diamond,’ an NGO like Global Witness is clearly on strong ground in calling attention to claimed government killings and other abuses at Marange. Global Witness is on much less certain ground when it wades into various issues to do with overall regulation of Zimbabwe’s diamond industry.

Says Global Witness in its report on Marange, “Many Kimberley Process participant governments appear reluctant to deal with Zimbabwe’s noncompliance for fear that they might undermine the country’s Government of National Unity. And yet, far from bolstering the unity government, allowing abuses and impunity to persist in Marange provides members of the Zanu PF and military elite with an opportunity for personal enrichment – and the means to buy the loyalty of the security forces – endangering the already fragile power-sharing agreement.”

‘Personal enrichment’ by unorthodox and illegal means at Marange, by anybody, is clearly a matter of great concern to Zimbabweans. But it is arguably not a detail for an organization like Global Witness to have tried to use as part of its anti-certification arsenal.

Continues the report, “The MDC itself appears to recognize the risks that the situation poses, and Minister of Finance and MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti recently called
for all licenses in the disputed fields to be cancelled “in the interest of transparency.”

But that same Tendai Biti has now made 2012’s expected US$600 million into government coffers from Marange diamond proceeds a central part of his recently released budget. The MDC part of the unity government that Global Witness said would be prejudiced by the KP’s refusal to ‘deal with Zimbabwe’s non-compliance’ has fully welcomed the KP’s certification of Marange diamonds!

Conditions at Marange may be far from ideal, but even the MDC half of the unity government agrees that the country desperately needs the revenue from its diamonds. Global Witness and other certification opponents may not approve of this, but this is a compromise decision for Zimbabweans to make, not outsiders.  

Global Witness was effectively left high and dry by some of the groups it might have expected to continue to support its opposition to certification, including the MDC and Western governments, who have all now embraced the KP’s recent certification of Marange diamonds. The various opposing local and international political actors have found an accommodation of common interests with each other over the Marange certification issue, leaving Global Witness with some egg on its face.

The local political dynamics, which Global Witness would have been better off staying out of in its anti-certification argument, have shifted. Yet the violence and other abuse arguments on which Global Witness was on firmer ground remain unresolved, or at least unknown and unclear.        

Gooch said all existing contracts in the Marange fields should be cancelled and re-tendered with terms of reference that reflect international best practice on revenue sharing, transparency, oversight by and protection of the affected communities. He said the diamond industry should be required to demonstrate diamonds it sells were not fuelling abuses ” by complying with international standards on mineral supply chain controls, including independent third party audits and regular public disclosure.

This is all very well, and it would indeed be of great benefit for the nation of Zimbabwe if such conditions of diamond mining at Marange obtained. But in how many others of the member countries of the KP do these conditions yet obtain? Poor mining conditions in other countries would in no way excuse killings, smuggling or corruption at Marange. The point is merely that Global Witness lost a considerable amount of its persuasive ammunition by expecting the KP to guarantee mining conditions at Marange which do not exist in most of the member countries which it was hoping would bring naughty, recalcitrant Zimbabwe to book.

Global Witness is right to try to hold member governments to book for the KP member agreement they voluntarily signed. However, GW is at the same time also unrealistic to expect that diamond mining conditions in any of the member countries can be substantially divorced and different from the general issues of governance of these countries. It is naïve to expect clean and transparent diamond mining in DRC or Zimbabwe when nothing else about how these and many other KP member countries are run is clean and transparent.

Even if mining at Marange were somehow conducted in a way meeting the approval of Global Witness, there would be so many other ways in which the broader political reality of Zimbabwe (or DRC, for example) could be said to be in violation of the ‘founding principals’ of the KP. Zimbabwe is a low to medium level repressive state, and it is inevitable that a new, easy cash cow like diamond mining would reflect this. This is not to excuse that state of affairs, but merely to point out that ‘transparent’ mining in such a situation is not going to be because of the government’s non-existent respect for its citizens.

Cleaning up diamond mining in any country cannot be separated from the issue of cleaning up the country’s politics and governance. This is clearly beyond the ability of the KP to do, and is any case part of national political development best left to local groups.

What emerges from this is that Global Witness, for all its noble intentions, vastly over-estimated what it was possible to achieve to clean up diamond mining in Zimbabwe or anywhere else through the KP. If it was initially hoped at its inception that the KP would be the panacea for all the crookedness in the global diamond industry (which crookedness is far from only or even mainly in producer countries), it should be clear by now that it was a far-fetched hope. The KP can be only one instrument of trying to clean up global diamond mining.  

Gooch said, “The Kimberley Process's refusal to evolve and address the clear links
between diamonds, violence and tyranny has rendered it increasingly outdated. The KP has spent the past few years lurching from one shoddy compromise to the next in a manner that strips away its integrity and undermines its earlier achievements.”     

This is a spot on observation of the relative ineffectiveness of the KP to accomplish what it was hoped it would do for world diamond mining. Curiously, however, the same Global Witness that is such an astute observer of the many inadequacies of the KP failed to ‘evolve’ its tactics to the unique challenges the goings on at Zimbabwe’s Marange presented the NGO.

The withdrawal of Global Witness from the KP soon after the certification of Marange diamonds vaguely smacks of wounded pride over having lost a crucial battle, rather than disgust on a matter of principle. The many changes the KP needs to undergo in order to better deal with situations like the one presented by Marange would arguably be better served by Global Witness having remained in it than by its sulky withdrawal.

If the KP is outdated, one additional way may be in how it expected that realizing clean diamond mining in any country could be a relatively short, technocratic process, rather than inevitably an integral part of that country’s political and governance progression.

 When cleaning up Marange proved not to be a couple years wonder of an event, Global Witness chose to pull out of the longer term process which it will clearly be. Depending on one’s point of view, that is either admirably sticking to principal, or it is chickening out of a task because it is longer and harder than first expected. Global Witness, which of these two possibilities best characterizes your pulling out of the KP?     


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