Controversial Zimbabwe Diamonds Dispute Deepens

Peta Thornycroft | Johannesburg

There is growing confusion over whether Zimbabwe can legally export rough diamonds from its military-run Marange fields under the Kimberley Process, the mechanism meant to stop the flow of so-called "blood diamonds." Experts have conflicting views on whether Zimbabwe is complying with Kimberley Process rules.

Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti has repeatedly said he wants revenue from the Marange fields so he can increase public sector wages. But he added that he wants the Kimberley Process to achieve a consensus on Zimbabwe.

Kimberley Process Chairman Mathieu Yamba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, says Zimbabwe can legally export the Marange diamonds. But international human-rights groups, backed by some Western countries, including the United States, say consensus on Zimbabwe was not reached at the recent Kimberley Process meeting in Kinshasa.

The process was created to stem the flow of so-called blood diamonds used by armed groups and rebels to finance wars. Human-rights groups say Zimbabwe's military has beaten, tortured, and killed civilians to exercise control of the Marange fields.

Research Director Alan Martin of Partnership Africa Canada, a non-governmental organization that has done considerable research on human rights abuses committed by Zimbabwean security forces in 2008. He says Zimbabwe should not be allowed to export diamonds from the Marange area.

“The military and police remain very much in charge of how diamonds are produced in Marange, which is sort of like guns and alcohol - and the two do not go together,” Martin said.

Mining minister blamed

Martin blames Mining Minister Obert Mpofu and his ZANU-PF party colleagues in government for obstructing the country's progress toward exporting certified diamonds.

“It has its destiny in its own hands. [If] It can have respectful negotiations with the Kimberly Process, it will probably get its way, but up to now it has not done that,” Martin said.

He says, for example, Mpofu has had two years to draw up a plan to involve small-scale miners in exploiting alluvial Marange diamonds, but has failed to produce a plan.

“They have insulted people, refused to negotiate, obfuscated, lied, threatened, intimidated, et cetera, which is the normal way ZANU works. This is a matter of ZANU locking itself into a room, throwing away the key and blaming us for the fact it can not get out of the room,” Martin said.

Protest walkout

At last week’s Kimberley Process meeting in Kinshasa, Partnership Africa Canada walked out in protest of Chairman Yamba's decision to certify Zimbabwe’s diamonds.

Veteran diamond writer and analyst Chaim Evan-Zohar has been highly critical of previous human-rights abuses in Marange. He was a member of a Kimberley Process review mission that inspected Marange diamond mines last year.

He says Marange mines have now complied with Kimberley Process rules and regulations, and that Chairman Yamba's decision in Kinshasa was correct in ruling that rough stones from Marange can be exported legally.

He says Kimberley Process rules have been politicized in the Zimbabwe controversy, which has undermined the international regulator.

“Because of the politicization of the Kimberley system, which has brought in all kinds of other elements, which are more detrimental even [to] the Kimberley Process itself, than to Zimbabwe,” Zohar said.

He said with or without Kimberley Process approval, Zimbabwe has and will find ways of selling its diamonds.

“Zimbabwe finds ways to get its diamonds out to the market one way or another. Kimberley Process has deviated from its own procedures and rules and core purpose, that is a problem. Sanity should return to the Kimberley Process and there is a way it can be done,” Zohar said.

Zohar adds that retailers depend on their own due diligence, not the Kimberley Process, to ensure diamonds came from ethical mines.

Although most African states say they agree that Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds can now be legally exported, Alan Martin says some African diamond producers fear being tainted with the Zimbabwe brush.

Consumers to have final say

He says consumers will have the last say and that there is ongoing debate about the evolution of the Kimberley Process to keep on top of changing realities.

“Look at countries such as Botswana. Botswana understand(s) the centrality of their diamond industry to their economic livelihood. Countries like Zimbabwe, we do not have much hope for, we understand that. Over time you are going to see countries which do respect human rights, that do understand the integrity of diamonds to their economies, they will make that move,” Martin said.

In a related controversy, Zimbabwe's finance minister Biti says the state treasury has received no income during 2011 from the diamond mines in Marange, in which the government is a 50-percent shareholder. That would cripple any plan to increase public-sector wages, which Biti is facing enormous pressure to do.

Several reliable sources in southeastern Zimbabwe, who asked not to be named, recently told VOA that diamonds are being smuggled out of the Marange fields. The sources said junior soldiers in nighttime partnerships with civilian diggers regularly facilitate the smuggling of the stones.