In 2001 and 2002, the world watched in horror as marauding mobs in Sierra Leone, supported by Liberia's Taylor, attacked ethnic minority groups -- hacking limbs (and occasionally heads) in a bid to extend Taylor's control of the country's diamond trade. In the same period, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, diamonds funded both sides of a civil war. Angola, meanwhile, was just beginning to recover from a decades-long civil war. In each of these conflicts, diamonds played a central role: They either acted as a key driver or, as in the case of Angola, a source of funding that allowed rebels to continue to fight.
NGOs, led by London-based Global Witness, began a campaign in the late 1990s to draw public attention to that role. Members of the activist coalition argued that the mining companies, trading firms and even jewelers were playing a role in sustaining the conflicts, and they called on each of these actors in the industry to address the issue. Around the same time, in 1999, a United Nations study of the war in Angola cited diamonds as a key factor in warring factions' ability to procure weapons and transport. The report argued that many countries were helping to smuggle and launder Angolan diamonds for the rebels, and the U.N. concluded that the monitoring systems that were in place were "wholly inadequate" to monitor an illegal diamond trade.
Industry's initial response to the NGO campaign was weak. De Beers took some steps to reduce sourcing from conflict zones, but that only left a void in the market that competitors quickly filled. Retailers, meanwhile, did not see themselves as responsible for the various crises in Africa -- only a small percentage of diamonds on the market (less than 5 percent) could be classified as "conflict diamonds," and retailers had no idea where the diamonds they were selling had originated. And those who might have felt a sense of shared responsibility also saw themselves as having limited power to change the situation.
However, as Global Witness and its allies drew greater public attention toward the role of diamonds in African conflicts, retailers noticed that the public's perception of diamonds was changing in Europe and the United States. Though diamonds were still in demand, their luster had been slightly dulled. That was significant: Unless you're talking about a diamond's industrial uses in drill bits and other machinery, its value lies chiefly in public perception. On the jewelry market, diamonds are worth only what buyers are willing to pay for their aesthetic beauty and the prestige associated with them -- and jewelers have other beautiful stones they can sell.
Thus, the dimmer the public's view of diamonds became, the more vulnerable the industry began to feel. The outcome of all of this was the Kimberley Process -- a certification regime that tracks the locations of a diamond throughout its life cycle, from the mine to the jeweler.
Under this system, each link in the chain of custody must prove to third-party observers that it has effective processes for tracking a diamond while it is in possession. Entire national diamond-trading systems are certified at one time under the Kimberley Process, and governments, therefore, are relied upon to place pressure on their industries.
Significantly, the Kimberley agreement, as initially drafted, called for the process to be reviewed in its third year -- 2006 -- to determine whether it was working.
Once the Kimberley Process was in place in January 2003, the diamond industry's mission was clear: press for increased certification of diamonds, enforce the industry's monitoring of its chain of custody, and alert the public globally to the successes achieved under the Kimberley Process. By following this course, it was believed, the industry could put the conflict diamond issue to rest. For the most part, it has succeeded; the industry loudly claims that less than 0.2 percent of diamonds sold are not certified -- and NGOs do not dispute this argument. In many ways, the issue appeared, until recently, to have been resolved.
The Kimberley Process captured the imagination of numerous organizations involved in attempts to change industrial practices in developing countries.
NGOs concerned about the social and environmental effects of gold mining developed a strategy to persuade the gold mining and retailing industries to agree to a similar code of conduct. The idea was to capitalize on the momentum created by the conflict diamond issue, telling jewelers that a similar situation lurked in the background with gold; thus, NGOs from around the world began trying to draw parallels between conflict diamonds and gold mining. The strategy was not entirely successful, but mining companies and jewelers did get the message that they should start looking to build codes of conduct for those issues that cannot be resolved through political action or government regulation.
Some mining companies began work to build a code of conduct under the auspices of the United Nations. Most mining companies agreed to stop using the most heavily criticized gold-mining practices -- including cyanide mining -- under a code developed by the International Council on Mining and Metals. Similarly, the jewelry industry also began to call quietly for the mining industry to adopt a code of conduct relating to gold. Led by Tiffany & Co., jewelers began to work with NGOs and mining companies to find ways of improving social and environmental aspects of gold mining.
Prodded by retailers and NGOs, the jewelry and mining industries currently are developing a certification regime, working through an organization called the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices (CRJP) in London. The goal is to hammer out a workable code of conduct and to track the chain of custody, so that retailers can guarantee their merchandise does not contribute to human rights abuses or environmental degradation.
NGOs have had three years in which to find holes in the Kimberly Process system, and to dream about ways to broaden the agenda it represents. And now, almost as if on cue, the movie Blood Diamond is about to be released.
Whether coordinated or not, the movie will be perfectly timed to give maximum exposure to the criticisms of industry that NGOs have prepared. Activists will argue that the Kimberley Process is not strict enough, that it should be policed by governments (rather than third parties hired by the companies in question) and that its mission should be broadened to include elements other than simple chain-of-custody requirements -- including issues like those being addressed by the CRJP. The movie itself, of course, will not make a case for these arguments. But by bringing attention to these issues, it will create a forum for representatives of Amnesty International, Global Witness and other groups to explain what they believe is -- and is not -- working with the Kimberley Process.
During the late summer and fall, we expect to see NGOs moving to broaden the certification regimes that influence what products are sold in jewelry stores. Fights over both the limits of the Kimberley Process and gold practices will extend into 2007.
The larger, more amorphous issues at stake, however, are the degree to which major international NGOs are able to embed their values in commercial activities and relationships, and the degree to which the groups are seeking expressed power within these certification regimes. If groups like Global Witness or Earthworks are able to gain influence within the CRJP, or if the Kimberley Process gives these groups significant influence in expanding the mission of the certification regime, they will have crossed a major threshold in the de facto public policy cycle. In short, these NGOs would be actively embedding liberal Western ideals in global commerce. That would be an important step.
However, there is a danger of overreaching. If the NGOs should press beyond this point and demand that control of the oversight process in the Kimberley Process be taken away from industry, they could jettison the very influence they now are pursuing. This has occurred before; NGOs (particularly Amnesty International) threw their weight behind the U.N. Norms initiative concerning corporate social responsibility, while ignoring the concerns of industry. The result: The whole project was discredited before it could take flight.
That leaves the question: Will the NGOs that are active in mining issues know when to stop pushing -- or be able to stop if they need to?
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