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Conflict arises over diamonds from Zimbabwe

Human rights groups say diamonds from the Mugabe regime's Marange mine should be blacklisted as 'blood diamonds' but most nations that are part of the regulatory Kimberley Process balk at comparing a government to insurgents.

June 20, 2011|By Neela Banerjee and Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo from 2006 shows miners digging for diamonds in Marange, in eastern Zimbabwe. Human rights groups say the Robert Mugabe government seized the mine by killing hundreds of prospectors and then forced countless people into hard labor.
A photo from 2006 shows miners digging for diamonds in Marange, in eastern… (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi,…)

Reporting from Washington and Johannesburg, South — Human rights groups and Western countries fear that a new batch of what they consider to be "blood diamonds" is about to enter international markets, culled from vast deposits in Zimbabwe.

At stake is what happens to the Marange deposits in eastern Zimbabwe, believed to be the biggest diamond find in a generation, and the definition of what kind of diamonds should be kept out of international markets.

Current restrictions on diamond sales are meant to ensure that consumers are not inadvertently funding wars in Africa. The rules were established in 2003 after rebel groups in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia sold millions of dollars in rough diamonds on the world market, using proceeds to fund vicious insurgencies. Such gems came to be known as conflict, or blood, diamonds.

Human rights groups contend that the same restrictions should apply to governments that acquire diamonds through serious human rights violations. They are trying to maintain a ban on diamonds from Marange, which the ruling party in Zimbabwe seized in 2009, allegedly by killing hundreds of prospectors. The ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe continues to control the area through a mix of violence and forced labor that has helped enriched the party elite and filled the war chest but contributed nothing to the national budget, rights groups say.

There has been a temporary moratorium on exporting diamonds from the area, but many African nations bridle at any comparison between Zimbabwe and the rebels in Sierra Leone and Liberia, some of whom hacked limbs off civilians. They contend that criticism of Zimbabwe is part of a Western agenda to control global diamond markets.

"It is clear that there are fears Zimbabwean diamonds would flood the market," said Kennedy Hamutenya, Namibia's diamond commissioner, who supports the export of Marange gems.

Zimbabwe's critics say the Kimberley Process, as the regulatory group governed by diamond exporting or importing nations is known, is supposed to address any violence fueled by diamonds.

"I'd refute the idea that the Kimberley Process is only about rebel movements and not any other kind of human rights violations. It's an excuse being used by governments," said Elly Harrowell of Global Witness, a London-based human rights group.

In March, the Kimberley Process' new chairman, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, moved unilaterally to lift a moratorium on exports from Marange. In addition, South Africa said it would permit its companies to trade in Marange gems. Critics of the chairman's decision are trying to get members to reverse it at a meeting in Kinshasa, Congo, that begins Monday.

"If the Kimberley Process accepts the decision to let Zimbabwe export diamonds from Marange, the agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on," said Alan Martin, research director of Partnership Africa Canada, an Ottawa-based human rights group and early advocate of the Kimberley Process. "No ethically minded couple anywhere in the world would be able to walk into a jewelry store and be assured that the diamonds there are conflict-free."

It remains unclear whether the Kimberley Process helped extinguish the wars in western Africa, which were already winding down. Awareness of the issue had little effect on consumers in the U.S., said Matthew A. Runci, president of Jewelers of America, a trade association.

Still, the Kimberley Process has been embraced by 75 countries that produce, cut and polish, trade and buy diamonds.

For industry, the certification system removes the shadow of violence from a jewel synonymous with love. For governments, certification means a better price for their gems than they would command through smuggling. As a result, no one wants to see the process fold.

Mugabe, visiting the Marange fields Wednesday, told the state-owned Herald newspaper that Zimbabwe would trade its diamonds, even if a Kimberley Process decision goes against it. Yet few expect Mugabe to lose, given the wide support Zimbabwe has among the process' member states throughout the world. Only the United States, Europe, Australia and human rights groups oppose exports from Marange under current conditions.

"This is racist criticism from people with colonial attitudes," Zimbabwe Mines Minister Obert Mpofu said.

Activists in Zimbabwe said the situation was so sensitive in the run-up to the Kinshasa meeting that they risked their lives if they spoke out.

Farai Maguwu, an activist jailed for exposing human rights abuses and smuggling in Marange, said that "a lot of work still needs to be done for Zimbabwe to meet the [Kimberley Process] minimum standards in terms of human rights, in terms of security and making sure diamonds are not smuggled out of Marange to feed the illicit market."

Given their small numbers, Zimbabwe's critics in the Kimberley Process said they expect barriers to Marange diamond exports would gradually be stripped away, regardless of human rights practices in the area.

"If the process continues to unwind, jewelers need to do more on their own, and some have already said we don't want any diamonds from Zimbabwe, period," Runci said.

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Banerjee reported from Washington and Dixon from Johannesburg.

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