Is SA Passing the Buck on Blood Diamonds?

If the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (“KP”) is not a human rights initiative, what is it?This is a question which the South African government and other governments – African ones in particular – which participate in the KP really ought to answer.

The KP, a co-operative effort by governments, the diamond industry and civil society, began operating 10 years ago as a mechanism to try to remove conflict diamonds – more popularly dubbed “blood diamonds” – from the diamond market.

It defined conflict diamonds as those exploited by rebel groups to finance their civil wars against legitimate governments. The KP was inspired by horrible rebel groups like the RUF in Sierra Leone which mined diamonds to finance atrocities such as cutting off civilians’ arms and legs.

The KP has largely succeeded over the last decade in what it set out to do; it has reduced the percentage of what it defined as blood diamonds from about 15 percent to less than one percent of the overall diamond market. Yet for some time pressure has been building on the KP to extend its definition of conflict diamonds to include not only those exploited by rebels but also governments and corporations – in fact anyone who perpetrates violence and/or human rights abuses in the diamond business.

Human rights groups like Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) argue that there is no good reason that only rebel groups should be sanctioned. The issue shot to prominence about five years ago when activists forced the KP to suspend Zimbabwe from certification because the Zanu-PF government had used considerable violence to drive informal artisanal miners off the Marange diamond fields.

The KP investigated Marange and eventually satisfied itself that the violence at Marange had ended and so gave it a partial clean bill of health, permitting some exports of diamonds. As Welile Nhlapo, the outgoing KP chairman, has acknowledged, the KP should strictly speaking not have intervened in Marange as it was the Zimbabwe government, not a rebel group that was accused of atrocities.

Yet he, the South African government and most other African governments, are now resisting pressure to broaden the definition of conflict diamonds so that they could go after other governments in future.
At the opening of this week’s plenary, ShamisoMtisi, representing the KP Civil Society Coalition, including PAC, really tore into South Africa for failing to show leadership during its tenure of the KP.

What has riled civil society especially has been South Africa’s indifference – or active resistance – to its efforts to expand the KP’s jurisdiction to cover all those institutions with diamond blood on their hands. The coalition also opposed Angola’s bid – which South Africa supported – to become the next deputy KP chair.

Mtisi essentially argued that Angola is hardly an exemplar of ethical exploitation of natural resources, as a KP chair should be. But in his opening remarks to the plenary, Nhlapo once again shrugged off those attempts, warning that if the KP became too ambitious by tackling governments, it would jeopardize its existence.

Like Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu who also addressed the plenary, Nhlapo insisted that the KP could not tackle all issues of human rights and violence. Other institutions were better suited for those purposes, such as the UN Security Council to address violence and the UN Human Rights Council to address human rights violations.
It is by now a familiar tactic of the South African government to keep passing on the responsibility in this way. But the argument is flawed because the demand is that the KP address not all human rights violations but those perpetrated in mining diamonds.

The South African government’s implication is that the KP is not an organisation dedicated to addressing human rights violations. Yet that is precisely the purpose for which it was created, to try to ensure that diamonds are exploited without bloodshed. If that is not a human rights mandate, then what is it?