Export of Zimbabwean diamonds threatens ethical jewellery trade

blood diamonds africa

Diamonds mined in eastern Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields have come into question for potential human rights abuses. (Image courtesy of Global Witness)

With the Kimberley Process in a state of paralysis over Zimbabwean diamonds, consumers can no longer be sure they’re buying ethical jewels. Ahead of a BBC Panorama investigation into the issue, Rosie Spinks reports

The dusty veld on Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique is home to the Marange diamond fields; an area with rich alluvial deposits that have an estimated worth of up to US $800 billion and could be viable for the next 80 years.

However the extraction of diamonds from these fields – and their subsequent release into the global market - has put the ethical diamond trade in jeopardy due to allegations of serious human rights abuses connected to the region's diamond industry.

‘At this point, the consumer has no idea what they’re getting at jewellery stores,’ says Annie Dunnebacke of Global Witness, a UK-based NGO. ‘And retailers have no way of telling consumers if a diamond has been produced without human rights abuses.’

In 2002, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was created to prevent the sale of ‘blood diamonds', or stones used by rebel groups to fund civil wars, such as those in Sierra Leone and Angola.

Diamonds from Zimbabwe’s Marange region have been questioned ever since President Robert Mugabe’s forces took over mining operations there in 2008 as part of his attempt to nationalise the industry. Since then, numerous reports of human rights abuses—including rape, child labour, and mass killings—have emerged.

Tomorrow, BBC Panorama airs an in-depth investigation into the scale and scope of these alleged crimes, and assesses whether or not Mugabe will ever be held accountable.

The controversy over Marange diamonds reached a peak on June 23, when the civil society branch of the KPCS walked out in protest at the body’s official meeting being held in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The dozen African and international groups that comprise the KP civil society coalition, which includes Global Witness, clashed with KP Chairman Mathieu Yamba of the DRC. Yamba broke with the KP’s consensus-based decision making procedure by unilaterally stating that Zimbabwe could start exporting rough stones from Marange without having to prove their compliance with KP regulations first.

‘The case in Zimbabwe highlights the extent to which the KP isn’t able to [control] the members who don’t uphold the minimum standards to accountability,’ said Dunnebacke. She confirmed that Global Witness, which was instrumental in founding the KPCS, is currently ‘reconsidering future participation’ with the scheme.

Conservative MP Henry Bellingham, the UK Foreign Office Minister to Africa, said the UK is committed to ending the trade of conflict diamonds. Bellingham believes that Yamba’s recent decision cannot be considered valid.

‘Despite the statement released by the Chair of the KP in June, it is clear that KP members did not reach a consensus to resume exports of diamonds from Marange,’ Bellingham told the Ecologist. ‘Any agreement must ensure Zimbabwe complies with its KP obligations, and must be robust enough to ensure that the KP remains a credible and effective mechanism.’

Bellingham’s disapproval of Yamba’s unilateral action was echoed by other national governments including the US State department, which issued a statement saying it was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the non-consensus based decision.

The World Diamond Council, the group formed to represent the interests of the diamond industry in KPCS decisions, said in a press release that traders in the industry should avoid Marange diamonds for the time being.`The WDC urges all members of the trade to deal only in rough diamonds that are accompanied by KP certificates that comply with the consensus decisions of the Kimberley Process.’

Defining conflict diamonds

It has widely been quoted that less than one per cent of the diamonds on the world market are blood diamonds. However, Dunnebacke states this figure only applies when the narrow definition of a blood diamond is used, which only includes stones that rebel groups use to fund civil wars. In Zimbabwe, it is the legitimate (if controversial) government, not rebels, that is reportedly profiting from diamonds mined in inhumane conditions. In addition, Mugabe’s officials are failing to account for the proceeds from these stones in a transparent manner.

Farai Maguwu is a Zimbabwean diamond activist who was jailed and then released last year for allegedly 'publishing and communicating false information' related to human rights abuses at the mines. He said that if the KP is concerned with human rights, it must broaden its definition to include situations like the one in Zimbabwe.

‘In terms of ending rebel related conflicts the KP achieved its goal 100 per cent,’ Maguwu told the Ecologist. ‘But in terms of protecting people from diamond related violence, the KP has failed to find an answer, especially where it pertains to Zimbabwe. It's not about the identity of the perpetrator, whether it be government or rebel group that matters, it is all about protecting people.’

Maguwu is not optimistic when it comes to the prospect of average Zimbabweans benefiting from the vast mineral wealth that is found in their nation. ‘You have a situation where the Finance Minster says he is not receiving proceeds from diamond sales and then a quasi state institution [is] paying salaries for state employees using proceeds from diamond sales,’ Maguwu said. ‘Unfortunately diamonds are non-renewable and that day may never come when we [Zimbabweans] shall all say, “behold what our diamonds have done for us.”’

Zimbabwe as a symptom

However dire, the situation in Zimbabwe is only part of the larger challenge the KPCS faces at present. There are major underlying problems within the certification scheme as a whole that must be addressed, according to Dunnebacke. She cited administrative problems, including a lack of funding and a permanent secretariat, as well as issues caused by a consensus being required for every decision that's made.

The KPCS has a three-pronged structure: the civil society coalition, participating governments (of both producer and consumer nations), and industry representatives. Dunnebacke said that both government and industry have to make major changes if the KPCS is going to move forward as an effective regulator.

‘We need to face the facts now and see that government have failed in their responsibility to see that the KP is effective and industry has totally failed in their responsibility to see that there’s any supply train traceability,’ Dunnebacke said. ‘Its basic stuff - find out who your suppliers are, who their suppliers are, and then demand documentary evidence for that.’

In Zimbabwe's case, several possibilities remain. In the wake of Yamba’s decision, it's possible that Marange diamonds are being exported with KP certification attached. In addition, smuggled Marange diamonds could have already left Zimbabwe and been on the market prior to June's meeting.

For these and other reasons, Dunnebacke says, there is currently no guarantee of a ‘conflict-free’ diamond on the market. ‘It’s not something the consumer wants to hear,’ Dunnebacke said. ‘But the fact is unless you’re buying from certain companies that have a “mine to market” certification scheme or from retailers that only buy from a certain mine, there’s no way of knowing.’

Maguwu says that it's sad that something as precious as a diamond can result in such suffering and wants to see it change. 'Diamonds are an expression of love, not hatred or pain,' he said. ‘This love must flow from the place of origin, from that remote village, through the whole production chain, right up to the consumer.’

For more information, see www.globalwitness.org


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