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'EU needs to take firm stand on conflict minerals'

Interview: Anke RasperJanuary 29, 2016

The NGO Global Witness campaigns against human rights violations. It says more needs to be done to combat the trade of diamonds from conflict zones. The existing 'Kimberly Process' doesn't go far enough, it says.

Diamantensuche in Afrika
Image: Alexander Joe/AFP/GettyImages

DW: Who are the big winners and losers in the diamond trade?

Alice Harle: In terms of the markets, there certainly is a huge market in the US and in China. In terms of the trading hubs, Antwerp, Dubai and Mumbai remain very strong contenders. Obviously, diamonds are generally mined in Africa and they really should be a means of supporting development. But unfortunately, what often happens is that they become a means of driving and sustaining conflicts.

The Kimberly Process was put in place in 2002 to curb the fuelling of conflict by so-called blood diamonds or conflict diamonds. Under the scheme, diamonds need to have a certificate to prove that they come from conflict-free mines. What effect has the Kimberly Process had so far?

The Kimberly process was initially set up in response to a number of conflicts, particularly in Angola and in West Africa, for example, that were happening in the late 1990s and where there was a very clear link between diamonds and human rights abuses. In that sense it really was a landmark achievement. It did increase transparency; it did place stronger internal control systems on diamonds. But there are a number of structural weaknesses with the Kimberly Process that have really limited its ability to tackle the problem in all of its guises. The Kimberly Process' definition of a conflict diamond is extremely limited. Conflict diamonds are defined by the Kimberly Process as rough diamonds that are used by rebel movements that fight wars against legitimate governments.

Now, there are a range of human rights violations that are associated with diamonds amongst other harms and the Kimberly Process does not recognise this and is not enabled to act effectively in these situations. For example, in Zimbabwe, diamonds have been very closely associated with funding security services that are extremely loyal to the ruling party Zanu-PF. The risk there is that diamonds are being used to fund human rights violations. But they are human rights violations that the Kimberly Process just is not enabled to act on.

A secondary concern is that the Kimberly Process only applies to rough diamonds. So, from the point at which diamonds are cut and polished, there is no further regulation.

But of course people say that 99 percent of diamonds traded legally worldwide are certified conflict free under the Kimberly Process. So it's possible that certified diamonds still contribute to human rights violations?

Consumers really cannot be sure that the diamonds they are buying have not been associated with human rights abuses just because they were Kimberly Process certified. For instance, in 2014, the UN estimated that $24 million (22 million euros) worth of diamonds had been smuggled out of the Central African Republic since the conflict had begun in 2013. Now this was under a Kimberly Process suspension. If you consider a figure of $24 million in a country where a grenade costs less than a can of coke, you can imagine what that money could do to continue driving the conflict.

Simbabwe Diamanten-Mine
In Zimbabwe, it is not rebel groups but security services that are responsable for human rights abuses, says Harle.Image: AP

What is the most difficult problem at the moment?

There is really room and need for other responsible sourcing mechanisms. The Kimberly Process is a government-led scheme. But in 2011, the United Nations unanimously endorsed the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. And the principles really make it very clear that it is not only governments that have responsibilities as far as human rights are concerned. Companies really have a responsibility, too, to respect human rights in their operations, whether it is in their own territories or overseas. The method that the UN recommends to companies is a process called human rights due diligence, a process of conducting checks on your supply chain for risks of human rights abuses and taking steps to mitigate them.

How many companies are actually applying these transparency rules already?

Within the diamond industry, frankly, the uptake has not been very good so far. Global Witness is advocating for governments to take forward legal measures to compel companies to carry out human rights due diligence on their supply chains. This is not just in relation to diamonds, but it does really apply to a broader range of mineral resources including gold, diamonds and other minerals.

But is it possible at all to monitor 100 percent of the diamond mining and trading? A lot of it is done at a very small scale.

Guiding principles on business and human rights do make it clear that the way in which companies carry out due diligence according to their size will vary but they should be carrying out due diligence to the best of their ability. European Union institutions are about to start negotiations on the final text of a draft law on human rights due diligence and this is in relation to EU companies importing products which contain gold, tin, tantalum or tungsten. This is a really critical opportunity. The EU is a huge importer of these minerals and it really needs to take a very firm stand on this issue and to vote for a mandatory law so that the companies in the EU and ultimately consumers in the EU are not buying products that have been associated somewhere along its supply chain with human rights abuses.

Alice Herle is an expert on minerals for the London-based NGO Global Witness, which works to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption and human rights abuses worldwide and has been campaiging for improving international mechanisms to curb human rights violations in mineral trading.