Human rights observers agree: diamonds from Zimbabwe are tainted by violence and exploitation. Not long ago, Zimbabwe’s diamond fields were the site of torture, forced labor, child labor, sexual violence, and murder. Diamond mining in Zimbabwe continues to be plagued by human rights abuses and corruption. There also has never been a criminal investigation into a massacre that claimed the lives of 200 diamond miners.
Sadly, the Kimberley Process (KP), the international diamond certification scheme created to halt the blood diamond trade, has failed to ensure that Zimbabwe’s diamonds meet even the lowest ethical standards. In 2011, it decided to grant conflict free certification to Zimbabwe’s gems, giving its stamp of approval to shocking human rights abuses. As a result, consumers are at risk of buying a Zimbabwean diamond and the people of Zimbabwe have yet to benefit from their country’s diamond wealth.
In 2006, villagers in the Marange district of eastern Zimbabwe discovered one of the world’s biggest diamond deposits. By some estimates, the Marange diamond fields could produce as much as 40 million carats a year—worth about $2 billion, or over 10% of the global diamond supply.
Unfortunately, this diamond discovery was too tempting for Zimbabwe’s authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, to resist. In 2008, Mugabe sent his army to seize control of the diamond fields from unlicensed diamond miners. Shooting machine guns from helicopters, the army massacred more than 200 people and buried them in mass graves.
After the takeover, the army ran mining operations itself. Local residents, including children, were forced to mine for diamonds in slave-like conditions. Killings, beatings, torture, and sexual violence were all used by the army to keep local residents working and maintain a climate of fear.
In November 2009, the KP placed a temporary ban on the export of Marange diamonds. Zimbabwe was asked to withdraw its army from the Marange diamond fields, curb smuggling, and end the violence. The Zimbabwean government responded by putting private companies in charge of mining operations. But otherwise, it failed to comply with the KP’s demands.
Instead of ending military involvement, Zimbabwe gave military leaders part ownership in the companies overseeing mining activities. Smuggling remained rampant and violence and other human rights abuses continued. In 2010, the Zimbabwean police raided the offices of an organization working to document human rights abuses in the Marange diamond fields, imprisoning the group’s leader for five weeks. In October 2011, the BBC discovered secret camps where Zimbabwean soldiers brought diamond miners who failed to hand over earnings. Soldiers in the camp used torture, beatings, and rape to punish the miners.
Despite Zimbabwe’s lack of compliance, the KP bowed to political pressure. In November 2011, it lifted the export ban. Zimbabwe is now permitted to export its unethical diamonds with conflict free certification. The KP’s decision was so controversial that it prompted Global Witness, one of the advocacy groups that founded the KP, to resign from the certification scheme in protest, calling it an “accomplice to diamond laundering.”
Unsurprisingly, the lifting of the export ban did not lead to an improvement in Zimbabwe’s diamond mining practices. Diamond mining companies have been polluting the air and water. They have failed to provide adequate compensation or even food to the hundreds of families that were evicted to make way for diamond mining. Although violence has declined since 2008, trespassers continue to be beaten, tortured, and killed. Furthermore, nobody has held criminally responsible for the massacre in 2008.
Zimbabwe’s failure to ensure that its diamonds are ethically mined affects all Zimbabweans. In 2012, the advocacy group Partnership Africa Canada estimated that $2 billion in diamonds had been lost to smuggling, much of it disappearing into the hands of Mugabe insiders. The group called it the “biggest plunder of diamonds since Cecil Rhodes,” the 19th century British imperialist who founded De Beers. It is also believed that Mugabe’s political party, ZANU-PF, used stolen diamond revenues to fund a campaign of voter intimidation and ballot rigging that helped Mugabe, a despotic leader, rig a presidential election in 2013 and win a seventh presidential term.
Although the U.S. Treasury Department bans the import of Zimbabwean diamonds into the United States, U.S. consumers have few protections against buying a gem from Zimbabwe. Most of the country’s diamonds are exported to major trading hubs and cutting and polishing centers where they are mixed into the general diamond supply, their origins lost. From there, the gems are legally brought to the United States.
Only a small percentage of diamonds are traceable to an origin by the time they reach the consumer. Meanwhile, retailers do not make enough of an effort to avoid unethical gems. A study of jewelry retailers found that 56% of jewelers do not even have an auditing procedure in place to prevent the retail of conflict diamonds. Jeweler retailers claiming to sell “conflict free” diamonds almost always rely on the faulty KP certification, which provides no protection against the purchase of an unethical gem from Zimbabwe.
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