Prospectors dig for diamonds in Marange in 2006. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi /…)
Reporting from Washington — An early proponent of the United Nations effort to prevent so-called blood diamonds from reaching global markets announced Sunday that it was quitting the oversight group to protest the sale of uncut gems from Zimbabwe, which is accused of human rights abuses in one of its largest diamond fields.
The withdrawal of the Global Witness watchdog group from the Kimberley Process certification program, which is governed by diamond-trading nations, highlights growing problems in the system set up in 2003 to stop sales of rough diamonds from African war zones.
"Nearly nine years after the Kimberley Process was launched, the sad truth is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, nor whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes," Charmian Gooch, a founder of London-based Global Witness, said in a statement. "It has become an accomplice to diamond laundering — whereby dirty diamonds are mixed in with clean gems."
Several other advocacy groups said they were reconsidering support for the system, which has been embraced by 75 countries. A coalition of organizations boycotted the oversight group's most recent meeting, which took place last month in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The global diamond industry, which stands to earn billions of dollars from gems found in eastern Zimbabwe's Marange deposit, has been split over human rights issues.
Some in the industry worry about losing potential customers. The "industry is selling emotion, so the last thing you want in a customer's mind is any issue linked to collateral damage," Michael Rae, chief executive of the Responsible Jewellery Council, an international industry group, said by phone from Victoria, Australia.
Some human rights advocates said the dispute could lead to tightening of the regulatory system. "Maybe it will push the Kimberley Process to reform," Farai Maguwu, an activist who exposed human rights abuses in Marange, said by telephone from Zimbabwe.
The current chairman of the Kimberly Process, who is from Congo, lifted the group's moratorium on exports from Marange in March despite protests by the U.S., Canada and the European Union.
Alan Martin, research director for Partnership Africa Canada, a coalition of advocacy groups, said some reform may occur after the United States assumes the rotating chairmanship next year.
The certification system was created by the U.N. after brutal insurgent groups in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia sold rough diamonds on global markets to fund their wars.
Human rights groups contend the same restrictions should bar sale of diamonds acquired through other forms of violence. They point in particular to the Marange deposits, said to be the richest diamond find in decades.
In 2008, troops loyal to President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party seized the Marange fields, allegedly by killing hundreds of prospectors and forcing others into servitude, according to rights groups.
The United States has imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe's state mining concern to prevent the import of Marange diamonds. But experts said enforcement is difficult because Marange diamonds may be cut, polished and traded in different countries to hide their origin.