Who could be against trying to solve the blood diamond problem in Zimbabwe? Well, we follow debates in the diamond industry closely, and we occasionally see an argument (often from the very people tied to human rights abuses) that goes like this: All the talk about violence and corruption in Zimbabwe is a distraction, an attempt by imperialist Western powers to keep Zimbabwe poor. Western consumers who say they want ethical jewelry are actually hurting the Zimbabwean people by making it harder for the country to sell its diamonds.
We don’t think this argument makes a lot of sense. Never mind that Zimbabwe has no trouble finding buyers for its diamonds. We also don’t think it can or should be ignored that the Zimbabwean army is guilty of massacring more than 200 diamond miners, of torturing others, and of enslaving adults and children in the Marange diamond fields. Or that, although conditions have improved, security guards for mining companies continue to shoot and beat local residents. Or that corrupt elites are stealing most of the diamond profits – an estimated $2 billion since 2008. We want Africa to profit from its diamonds – we thus offer diamonds from Botswana and Namibia – but we don’t think diamonds should cause people to die or suffer.
On the other hand, we do recognize that there’s a history of distrust between developing and developed countries, and that when local, Zimbabwean voices speak on their own behalf against blood diamonds, it can be quite powerful. And that’s why a statement released last week by four Zimbabwean human rights groups is so important.
The statement expresses a sad truth: that “the mining of rough diamonds has brought more tears than joy to the African people.” It notes many of the problems plaguing diamond mining in Zimbabwe and Africa including violence, corruption, the forced displacement of local residents, and environmental degradation. It also calls on the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, to adopt a new definition of “conflict diamonds.” According to the statement, “conflict diamonds” should be defined as “rough diamonds used to undermine human rights, democracy and sustainable development.”
This last part is significant. Presently, the only diamonds that the Kimberley Process counts as “conflict diamonds” are diamonds that finance rebel groups in civil wars. The definition is absurd because it means that when governments (instead of rebels) kill diamond miners, the diamonds are certified as “conflict free.” Last year, the United States tried and failed to expand the definition to include most violence tied to diamond mining. The definition proposed by the Zimbabwean groups – one of which is led by Farai Maguwu, the courageous human rights leader – would go even further, requiring that “conflict free” diamonds be free of a broader range of injustices like corruption and environmental destruction.
Possibly one reason why the United States failed to win support for an expansion of the “conflict diamond” definition in 2012 is that some diamond-producing countries didn’t want to adopt an American proposal. This new statement from Zimbabwean human rights groups makes clear that the issue here isn’t Western imperialism – it is justice for the African people, who deserve a profitable diamond trade that is free of violence and that doesn’t cause human suffering or destroy the environment.
The countries belonging to the Kimberley Process will meet in a few weeks in South Africa. We hope that this new statement will help reshape the dialogue and build momentum for meaningful Kimberley Process reform.