An investigation by the BBC has revealed the existence of torture camps near the valuable Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. According to the article, the main torture camp is located just a mile away from one of the principal Marange diamond mines. Local diamond miners who refuse to hand over their earnings to Zimbabwean soldiers are typically brought to the camp, a collection of military tents surrounded by razor wire, for a period of several days. Male prisoners are subject to abuses including dog attacks, whippings, and mock drownings. Women are usually released earlier than men, but are often raped.
To some extent, there is nothing new about these terrible abuses. We already know that Zimbabwe’s military is capable of using horrific violence against diamond miners. In 2008, when the Zimbabwean military first seized control of the Marange diamond fields, it used all manner of violent tactics, including torture and rape, to force the local population into mining for diamonds on its behalf. This latest story only confirms that the Zimbabwean military is continuing to do what it did back in 2008. In fact, according to the story, the main torture camp reportedly has been open all this time.
And yet, two aspects of this story really do seem surprising. First of all, we wonder: how could the existence of these torture camps have been kept secret until now? The Marange diamond fields are the most controversial diamond fields in the world. In response to an outcry from human rights groups, the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, banned the export of Marange diamonds in 2009. For more than a year, Zimbabwe’s diamond mining practices have stood at the center of an intense debate about whether and when to lift the export ban. Moreover, it is not as if human rights groups and the press have failed to scrutinize this issue; for instance, they have publicized evidence of widespread smuggling of Marange diamonds, and have even reported on continued human rights abuses. But so far to our knowledge, this is the first time that torture camps—places where torture is conducted regularly and systematically—have come to light. How could this be?
The reason, we suspect, is that a thorough, unimpeded investigation into human rights practices in the Marange diamond fields has never been conducted. The Kimberley Process’s own monitoring efforts have been perfunctory. And although NGOs and the press have done an admirable job reporting on human rights conditions, Zimbabwean police and military have hampered these efforts. Furthermore, it is often in the course of criminal investigations that important new evidence comes to light. However, none of the government officials responsible for human rights abuses in the Marange diamond fields has ever been prosecuted. All of this means that there are probably still more revelations to come about the scale and scope of diamond-related violence in Zimbabwe.
A second aspect of this story worth pondering is the Zimbabwean government’s own decision-making. Over the past two years, Zimbabwe has been under considerable international political pressure to eliminate diamond-related human rights abuses. Zimbabwe also has financial incentives to make its diamond mining more ethical and transparent. The Marange diamond fields potentially could generate $2 billion worth of diamond exports each year. Why would the government jeopardize these exports by running a torture camp one mile away from one of its diamond mines?
Perhaps the Zimbabwean government has tried and failed to rein in abuses by its military. Or perhaps (and more likely), Zimbabwe’s corrupt President, Robert Mugabe, has purposely given his military a long leash with which to exploit the Marange diamond fields. Mugabe may have calculated that he has more to gain—in terms of military loyalty and smuggled treasure—by allowing his military to secretly persecute Marange diamond miners than by addressing ethical concerns.
If the latter is the truth, then perhaps Mugabe’s decision-making isn’t so irrational—at least for a corrupt, authoritarian leader like Mugabe. As we wrote recently, all indications point to a lifting of the Kimberley Process export ban. This means that diamonds with known links to torture and rape may soon be receiving “conflict free” certification from the Kimberley Process. It also suggests that the Zimbabwean government has played the Kimberley Process like a fiddle. From the beginning, the Zimbabwean government appears to have predicted that the Kimberley Process would cave and that the systematic torture of diamond miners could continue. Sadly, unless the Kimberley Process reverses course, it will have proven the Zimbabwean government right.