Countries belonging to the Kimberley Process, the international system created to stop the trade in conflict diamonds, have been deliberating for more than a month over whether to allow Zimbabwe to export diamonds from the valuable Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. The issue, in the broadest terms, has been whether to take a firm stand against human rights abuses, corruption, and diamond smuggling, or whether those issues wouldn’t count for much in the end.
On Thursday, the world received a disappointing answer.
Discovered in 2006, the Marange diamond fields have turned out to be far more of a curse than a blessing. They potentially could produce up to $1.7 billion in diamonds per year. In 2008, however, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe sent troops to the region to seize the diamond wealth. What followed was mayhem – killings, the forced labor of adults and children, torture, rape, and other human rights abuses by the Zimbabwean military – designed to consolidate Mugabe’s control over the area and extract the diamonds for the benefit of the military and Mugabe insiders.
Last November, the Kimberley Process debated putting a halt to all diamond exports from Zimbabwe but chose a more limited approach instead. Diamond exports from the Marange region were banned temporarily, pending a demonstration by the Zimbabwean government that it had cleaned up its act.
Since then, the Zimbabwean government’s record has been far from satisfactory. Through business proxies and a continued physical presence, the Zimbabwean military still controls mining operations in the Marange diamond fields. Human Rights Watch has documented continued instances of forced labor, beatings, and torture. Additionally, corrupt officials in the Zimbabwean government have been smuggling large amounts of Marange diamonds out of the country, in direct violation of the Kimberley Process ban. On top of all this, the Zimbabwean government has been cracking down on voices of dissent. Farai Magawu, director of an organization that has been documenting continued abuses in Marange, was arrested by Zimbabwean authorities in June and thrown in jail on the bogus charge of publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state. He has only recently been released on bail.
Representatives from Kimberley Process countries convened in Israel in June to determine whether to lift the ban on Marange exports, continue the ban, or suspend Zimbabwe from the Kimberley Process completely. When the meeting ended in a deadlock, Kimberley Process members agreed to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia in July to continue the discussions. Last week, with Zimbabwean officials threatening to sell Marange diamonds on the black market if the ban was not lifted, the Kimberley Process announced it had reached a consensus. Under a new agreement, Zimbabwe will be allowed to export two rounds of Marange diamonds between now and September. The Kimberley Process will supervise the shipments and determine in September whether to allow future exports.
We are doubtful that this decision was a wise one. By lifting the ban on Marange exports, the Kimberley Process has willfully ignored the record of the Zimbabwean government over the past eight months—the smuggling, the continued human rights abuses, and the crackdown on dissidents. Lifting the ban condones Zimbabwe’s record and severely undermines the Kimberley Process’s own credibility and reputation. We believe that the Kimberley Process is fast becoming an organization that legitimizes blood diamonds instead of an organization dedicated to stopping them.
Going forward, we will continue to hope that things will work out for the people of Zimbabwe. In theory, the Zimbabwean government could use revenue from the Marange diamond fields to make investments in schools, health clinics, and roads. What we fear, however, is that the money will go to the military, Mugabe insiders, and the coffers of Robert Mugabe’s political party. Next year, Zimbabwe will hold new presidential elections. With political power being contested in an unstable country sitting on a newly-discovered, massive deposit of diamonds, we fear that diamonds could again become a recipe for bloodshed.