A year ago around Valentine’s Day, the rights group Global Witness warned against efforts by Belgium to lift European sanctions on Zimbabwean diamonds. It noted then that a “love triangle” had developed between Belgian diamond dealers, the Belgian government, and Zimbabwe. So a year later, what happened to that love triangle? Unfortunately, it’s still going strong—strong enough that this Valentine’s Day, Zimbabwean diamonds are being auctioned in Antwerp.
The story of Zimbabwean diamonds deserves its own chapter in the diamond industry’s book of shame. The starting point for that story might be 2008, when the Zimbabwean army seized the valuable Marange diamond fields, massacred more than 200 unlicensed miners, and enslaved local adults and children. Diamond mining has since been turned over to mining companies, but plenty of abuse still happens. Mining companies have been beating and killing trespassers. They’ve failed to compensate hundreds of people evicted from their homes. They’ve polluted the air and water near the mines. It is also possible that company insiders are smuggling diamonds—basically, stealing money owed to the Zimbabwean Treasury.
The question, all along, has been how the international community should respond. The Kimberley Process, the international diamond certified scheme, required all member countries to ban the import of Zimbabwean rough diamonds between 2009 and 2011. After that, Zimbabwe was free to sell its rough diamonds anywhere it wanted, except in two of the world’s biggest diamond markets: the United States and the European Union. The decision by the United States and the EU to keep their own sanctions in place was meant to keep pressure on Zimbabwe to clean up its diamond trade, as well as to hold fair elections. Zimbabwe’s authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, has ruled Zimbabwe since 1982.
Two factors pushed the EU reevaluate its sanctions. One was the holding of national elections in Zimbabwe on July 31. Prior to the elections, the EU had promised to lift the sanctions if the elections were fair. The idea was to encourage a fair vote. But after the elections, which returned Mugabe to office, international opinion was divided. Most observers think the vote was deeply flawed, although a group of African nations deemed it credible enough to accept the result.
That ambiguous result left enough room for a second factor to come into play: Belgium. Antwerp, the world’s largest diamond trading hub, is facing increased competition from emerging diamond centers such as Mumbai, Dubai, and Tel Aviv. Antwerp’s diamond barons see in Zimbabwe a chance to revive their sagging fortunes. In support of its diamond dealers, the Belgian government pushed the EU to ignore questions about the elections. The pressure worked, and the EU lifted sanctions last September. The first Antwerp auction of Zimbabwean diamonds was held in December, and a second auction is underway now.
What this means is that Zimbabwe’s unethical diamonds now have a more direct route to European jewelry shops. It also removes a source of pressure on Zimbabwe to eliminate abuses and improve transparency. Which is too bad—because there are questions about whether the Antwerp auction itself was totally above aboard.
The Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a Zimbabwean human rights group that monitors Zimbabwe’s diamond trade, noted in a recent report that the 300,000 carats in diamonds auctioned in December fetched a surprisingly low price: just $10.7 million. One likely possibility, according to the CNRG, is that the diamonds were of low quality. But another possibility, the CNRG asserts, is that the diamond companies colluded with the buyers to sell the diamonds at a low price and receive the rest of the money off book. By doing part of the transaction secretly, the diamond companies would be able keep more of the profits for themselves and share less with the Zimbabwean Treasury.
The CNRG recommends that future diamond auctions be done publicly, in Zimbabwe, so that all Zimbabweans can see the diamonds and know who buys them. It also calls upon the Zimbabwean government to require that more of Zimbabwe’s diamonds be cut and polished locally, capturing more of the value for the Zimbabwean people.
We would have preferred if the EU had waited for improvements in Zimbabwe’s mining practices before lifting the sanctions. But now that it has, it’s still important that the diamonds be sold transparently. And it’s still important that abuses in Zimbabwe’s diamond fields be identified and addressed. We hope that next Valentine’s Day in Zimbabwe, there’s progress to celebrate.