It’s now official. The Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, has decided to permit the export of diamonds from the controversial Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. The decision brings an end to a long-running debate that, over the past two years, has nearly torn the Kimberley Process apart.
But is this controversy really over? We don’t think so. Not with human rights organizations threatening to leave the Kimberley Process, and not with billions of dollars in tainted diamonds about to be released into the international diamond supply.
As we’ve noted on this blog before, human rights violations in the Marange diamond fields are extremely serious. In 2008, the Zimbabwean army seized the Marange diamond fields, killing more than 200 people in three bloody weeks. The army then enslaved local adults and children, forcing them to mine for diamonds on the army’s behalf. Miners who disobey have suffered all kinds of brutalities, including torture, rape, and beatings.
The Kimberley Process placed a ban on the export of Marange diamonds in late 2009. At the time, it asked Zimbabwe to take a number of measures to comply with Kimberley Process standards. The Zimbabwean military was supposed to withdraw from the Marange diamond fields. Action was supposed to taken to curb smuggling. And human rights abuses—including killings, torture, and rape—were supposed to stop.
Two years later, not enough progress has been made on these fronts. The Zimbabwean military is still deployed in the area. Military generals and political allies of Zimbabwe’s authoritarian leader, President Robert Mugabe, still control mining operations. Smuggling is still rampant. Worst of all, human rights abuses are ongoing. A BBC investigation in September revealed that the Zimbabwean military is still running camps where local diamond miners are torture and raped.
Despite Zimbabwe’s lack of progress, Kimberley Process member countries have been engaging in a long and divisive debate about whether to lift the ban—with the United States and Europe arguing in favor of the ban, and many diamond-producing countries siding with Zimbabwe. Last week, at a meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States and Europe finally relented. Zimbabwe is will now be permitted to sell Marange diamonds. (As a small consolation, the United States will hold the rotating chair of the Kimberley Process in 2012.)
The diamond industry seems to consider the agreement a positive step forward. “This is a real milestone, and demonstrates categorically that the Kimberley Process provides the framework through which the integrity of the rough diamond chain of distribution can be protected,” said Eli Izhakoff, president of the World Diamond Council, the diamond industry trade group.
We disagree. With the export ban lifted, the Kimberley Process has lost its leverage to persuade Zimbabwe to improve its mining practices. Furthermore, the decision doesn’t solve any problems for the Kimberley Process. Instead, it compromises the Kimberly Process’s integrity and sets the certification scheme up for further controversy.
Human rights abuses and massive corruption still taint Marange diamonds. With each new revelation of wrongdoing in Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, the Kimberley Process’s reputation is going to be further stained. Human rights organizations boycotted last week’s Kimberley Process meeting. From now on, their criticism of the Kimberley Process will be especially sharp, and their involvement in the Kimberley Process is no longer guaranteed.
The Kimberley Process also risks alienating consumers. Does the Kimberley Process think consumers will not notice or care when diamonds mined using forced labor and linked to torture, rape, killings, and corruption begin to flood the shelves of jewelry stores worldwide?
The number of Marange diamonds about to enter the diamond supply is too large to escape consumer attention. In the past few years, Zimbabwe has stockpiled an estimated $1.7 billion worth of Marange diamonds. (By comparison, the entire world produces about $12 billion in rough diamonds per year.) This doesn’t even count the estimated $2 billion per year worth of rough diamonds that the Marange diamond fields potentially could produce going forward.
Essentially, the Kimberley Process has decided to certify conflict diamonds as “conflict free”—and hope for the best. We think this strategy is mistaken and likely to backfire. The only sustainable path forward for the Kimberley Process is the honest one: to refuse to certify diamonds mined in violent conditions.