As a South African monitor arrives in Zimbabwe to assess the human rights situation, a decisive moment looms for the Kimberley Process (KP), the international diamond certification scheme whose stated purpose is to combat the problem of conflict diamonds. The options for the KP are becoming starker: either bow down to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s corrupt President, or finally insist that Zimbabwe’s diamonds be mined in a transparent, ethical way.
It shouldn’t have come to this. In 2008, the Zimbabwean military, presently loyal to Mugabe, seized control of valuable diamond fields in the Marange district of Zimbabwe. The military then used forced labor of adults and children, torture, beatings, killings, and rape to subdue the population and extract the mineral wealth.
Human rights violations as appalling as these should have been enough to get Zimbabwe suspended from the KP—but apparently not. Last November, the KP opted to give the Zimbabwean government until June to improve conditions. Meanwhile, Zimbabwean diamonds tainted by bloodshed are still being sold on the international diamond market with the KP stamp of approval—thereby misleading consumers into believing that Zimbabwean diamonds are “conflict free.”
Zimbabwe’s military has reduced its footprint in the Marange district but not released its control over the diamond fields. Observers believe that military leaders plan to continue using the country’s diamond wealth to enrich themselves, purchase weapons, and strengthen Mugabe’s hold on power. In January, these suspicions were confirmed when it was discovered that the Zimbabwean military had built a secret airstrip in the Marange district—apparently for the purpose of exchanging diamonds for arms. The Zimbabwean government also continues to deny that any human rights abuses have taken place in country’s diamond fields.
Now a KP monitor—Abby Chikane, a South African and a former KP leader himself—has arrived in Zimbabwe to assess conditions and determine a way forward. Mugabe has practically dared the KP to challenge him; he is threatening to sell Zimbabwe’s diamonds on the black market, without KP certification, if the KP insists on tougher measures. “We’re trying to play it their own way, that is following the KP, but we can do it otherwise,” Mugabe told reporters in February. “We can sell our own diamonds elsewhere,” he said.
The KP has long been an inadequate response to the problem of conflict diamonds, but its actions on Zimbabwe have marred its credibility even further and turned the KP into something worse: a source of political cover for the Zimbabwean government. Still, the KP has one more chance to make the right choice. It needs to insist that Zimbabwe’s diamonds be mined ethically and in a way that helps all of Zimbabwe’s people. Mugabe’s threats aside, the KP must impose consequences, including suspending Zimbabwe, if it wants to play any useful role at all.
If, however, the KP chooses once again to condone Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses, expect to see a groundswell of discontent and growing pressure either to reform the KP or replace it altogether. At this pivotal moment, Brilliant Earth will continue to support strong international measures to ensure that all diamonds are mined in an ethical way.