NAIROBI, Kenya and FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — To halt the trade in "blood diamonds" — gems whose sales fuel deadly conflicts — the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was established in 2003. But as signatory states meet in Namibia this week, one of the scheme’s architects said the Kimberley Process is not working.

“When you see what the Kimberley Process can do it’s very disappointing where it fails,” said Ian Smillie, reached by phone at his Ottawa office as research coordinator for the non-governmental organization Partnership Africa Canada.

When it was launched, the Kimberley Process was promoted as the way to clean up the diamond trade because it can trace and certify the origins of all rough diamonds. Consumers should be able to tell where their diamonds come from and whether they are fueling conflict. Seventy-five governments have since signed up to the self-regulatory code.

But Smillie does not believe that the certification process is working. This month he quit his job in protest at the lack of commitment to the Kimberley Process shown by signatory states.

“I’m not prepared to take part in a pretence that the Kimberley Process is working when it is not,” he told GlobalPost.

Smillie's criticisms of the Kimberley process were repeated by Global Witness, a London-based  human rights group which tracks international mining activities. "The clock is running out on Kimberley Process credibility," said Annie Dunnebacke, spokeswoman for Global Witness.

Sierra Leone's civil war raged for several years until 2002 and the country became synonymous with blood diamonds, recently serving as the backdrop to a Leonardo Di Caprio movie about the illegal trade.

[Diamonds are forever? A fall in demand for the glittering stones puts jobs at risk.]

All around Koidu in the far east of Sierra Leone, young men dream of diamonds, but few find them. Standing thigh deep in a muddy pit, 25-year-old Mohamed Sano shook a wooden sieve and squinted into the sludge. Disappointed he threw the gravel back into the murky brown
water. Next to him stood another young man, then another, and another and another.

Day after day across the muddy, cratered moonscape, hundreds of men stand hunched beneath a fierce sun sifting through the gravel hoping to find an elusive gem that might change their lives.

During the war, men like Sano were slaves digging diamonds out of the alluvial fields by hand, watched over by drug-addled kids with AK-47s. These "blood diamonds" were sold on the world market and the proceeds used to fuel the brutal fighting.

In Sierra Leone, the Kimberley Process has helped limit the trade in illegal diamonds. Activists estimate that during the civil war the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels raked in around $125 million a year from smuggled diamonds.

Back then, official exports of diamonds from Sierra Leone were worth a little more than $1 million a year. Although some smuggling still goes on, official exports are now worth well over $100 million a year, providing much-needed funds for the government.

Sierra Leone is something of a success story but elsewhere things have not gone so well. Smillie highlighted Guinea in West Africa, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Lebanon as the worst examples.

In Guinea diamond production has increased 500 percent in recent years, which is suspicious. “Guinea’s diamonds could be from Sierra Leone or Liberia or Mars for all we know,” said Smillie.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe’s regime is accused of massacring informal diamond miners yet Kimberly Process governments have refused to speak out.

For years there have been no official diamond exports from Venezuela despite an active mining sector, meaning that all Venezuelan diamonds are smuggled illegally even though the country remains a Kimberley Process member.

And Lebanon manages to export more of the gems than it imports: In much of West Africa, the diamond traders who buy from men like Sano are Lebanese and the country is a well known transit centre for smuggled diamonds, some of which fund criminal and terrorist groups.

This was made startlingly clear soon after the Sept. 11 attacks when Washington Post journalist Douglas Farah revealed the links between smuggled diamonds and terror networks. He showed how illegally mined West African diamonds helped fund Al Qaeda.

Although the diamond-fueled wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and Ivory Coast are now over, the Kimberley Process can play an important role in ensuring that diamonds do not destabilize countries and exacerbate future conflicts.

It is also important as a model for the control of other resources that fuel wars and prop up abusive regimes across Africa, such as coltan and other minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Smillie says that signatory states are more interested in the fig leaf that the Kimberley Process provides than in taking the action needed to make sure diamonds do not sustain wars and undermine stability in fragile countries. “I used to give the Kimberley Process
seven out of 10, but not anymore,” said Smillie.

Annie Dunnebacke, a spokesperson at the London-based resource advocacy organization Global Witness, said: “The clock is running out on Kimberley Process credibility. The work it was set up to do is vital — it would be scandalous if uncooperative governments and industry
succeeded in hobbling it into ineffectiveness."

While Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada continue to engage with the Kimberley Process, for Smillie the endless frustrations proved too much to bear.

“It’s really hard to admit that something that you’ve given 10 years to doesn’t work, but I can’t keep pretending it works when it doesn’t,” he said.

More GlobalPost dispatches on diamonds:

Diamonds are forever?

Today blue is the color of money

Related Stories