Zimbabwe’s blood diamonds and the failure of the international community
“We will be grateful to the flowers only if they have borne fruit” – Zimbabwean Proverb
As news of the immense mineral wealth in Zimbabwe became apparent a few years ago, many hoped that the discovery of precious diamonds would endow the deeply troubled nation with a lifeline. However, as has too often proved the case in Africa, mineral riches have offered yet another devastating blow to a weary land.
Located near Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique, lie the vast and significant Marange diamond fields; areas of immense mineral deposits, which have become increasingly identified as the latest frontier in the world’s production of ‘blood diamonds’. The diamond fields of Marange potentially hold up to a fifth of the world’s diamond reserves, and with an estimated value in the region of $800 billion, the ethical dilemmas involved in the globalised trade of diamonds have once again cast scrutiny over the network. Reports of grave human rights abuses throughout the region, coupled with the industry’s inability and seeming unwillingness to guarantee the ethical sourcing of diamonds, pose alarming questions about the future viability of ‘clean’ diamonds.
In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council established the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), designed to prevent the trade of illicit diamonds and its close links with brutal and self-perpetuating armed conflicts, particularly in Africa. However the scheme is in disarray almost a decade on, and the market in blood diamonds has evaded the frameworks designed to end its practice.
President Robert Mugabe’s forces seized control of the Marange diamond fields in 2007; since then, numerous reports have highlighted abuses towards local communities and diggers. The NGO Global Witness has documented violence since 2007, finding evidence of grave human rights abuses; ‘resulting in hundreds of deaths, and many more cases of assault, rape, arbitrary detention and forced labour’. Furthermore, the report condemned the ‘smuggling operation that enables rough diamonds to flow from Zimbabwe outside the KPCS [Kimberley Process Certification Scheme][…] largely operated and maintained by official entities’. Citing their findings as valid justification for the temporary expulsion of Zimbabwe from the KPCS, and despite an official KP review team itself acknowledging Zimbabwe’s use of ‘extreme violence’ and non-compliance with prescribed regulations, the country has retained its membership.
The BBC’s recent Panorama documentary has added further, damning evidence about the nature of operations at the Marange diamond fields. In their desire to monopolise the mining of diamonds in the region, the ruling forces have punished civilians found to be mining for diamonds, whilst corrupt police and military personnel have forcibly recruited civilians to dig illegally on their behalf. The programme uncovered a range of torture and abuse techniques suffered by prisoners at the hands of Mugabe’s forces. These included regimented whippings, ‘40 whips in the morning, 40 in the afternoon and 40 in the evening’, as well as the sexual assault of female prisoners. In further unsettling revelations, a former police officer disclosed techniques involving mock-drownings, genital whipping, and the use of dogs to maul prisoners.
Many critics have pointed to inherent structural problems within the KPCS that undermine its efficacy. Although the Kimberley Process did suspend exports from the Marange mines in June 2009, it agreed later that year to a joint working venture with the country; a phased withdrawal of Mugabe’s troops from the fields, and the presence of a KPCS monitor to certify that the diamonds were indeed ‘conflict free’. However despite no evidence of the army’s departure, and with continued reports of abuse, the President of the KPCS, Mathieu Yamba, declared in July this year that exports from Marange could resume. Civil liberty groups walked out of the meeting and the comments have also been heavily criticised by Human Rights Watch; ‘The KP desperately needed to reform to ban the sale of all blood diamonds, not just some (…) but the chairman chose profits over rights and might have ruined the KP in the process’.
The KPCS is also weighed down through its narrow definition of the term ‘blood diamonds’. Its charter designates blood diamonds as ‘rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments’. The definition is unfortunately both self-limiting and self-defeating; it is not entirely clear why blood diamonds mined under the control of rebel groups are considered more destructive than those mined under the authority of ‘legitimate’ governments. This clause provides no injunction preventing abuses committed by governments against their own people, and has indeed been used by some members of the KPCS to justify a resumption of mining, leaving the KPCS deadlocked over the situation in Zimbabwe.
More problematic still, is the nature of the KPCS per se; essentially working on the premise of voluntary self-regulation. Diamonds are tracked from their mine to their retail destination, and whilst this has provided some initiative for member countries to trade transparently with one another, it does not answer the requirements for an operational regulatory system equipped to prohibit illegal trade. Amnesty International has dismissed the voluntary system of warranties as; ‘more of a PR exercise than a credible system. It is not a robust and credible system that will combat conflict diamonds’. As the current crisis in Zimbabwe has stressed, blood diamonds are able to navigate beyond the frameworks of the KPCS and find their way into globalised markets through underground trade, undermining guarantees about the ethical sourcing of diamonds.
In the face of accumulating evidence of Zimbabwe’s trade in blood diamonds, the EU has this month taken the disappointing decision to overturn a ban, implemented since 2009, permitting the export of diamonds from the Marange fields. Although this decision was taken before the BBC’s Panorama documentary, it is nonetheless a discouraging response in the global fight against the world’s blood diamonds. Henry Bellingham MP, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, clarified that the exports are only permitted from parts of Marange that have met the minimum requirements under the KPCS, and that these parts are ‘subject to ongoing, rigorous monitoring’. The EU’s response sends a plainly inadequate message to the international community, and with the KPCS floundering under its structural problems and appearing progressively irrelevant, the global message on blood diamonds is incoherent, contradictory, and ineffective.
The cost of blood diamonds to a society cannot be underestimated. It is a history tainted with the deaths of millions, gross human rights violations, and the disintegration of civic society. It is now more pertinent than ever that we hold our governments to account, and ask, ‘what price for these diamonds?’
Photo Credits: Candace Feit for The New York Times
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