Both the EU and the US have called on Zimbabwe to intensify efforts to improve conditions in the African nation's Marange diamond mines. Human rights groups continue to document military abuse against workers there.
The diamonds in the Marange fields could bring Zimbabwe up to $1.7 billion in revenue a year
The controversy surrounding Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields could not be resolved at a conference of the UN-backed Kimberley Process (KP), which regulates the worldwide trade of conflict diamonds. Delegates at the recent KP meeting in Tel Aviv failed to reach a consensus on whether to allow Zimbabwe to resume exporting Marange diamonds.
The KP withdrew certification of the fields last November after its investigators documented forced labor, beatings and other abuses by the military against civilians working in the diamond fields.
Human rights groups have called for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the KP, saying it had not fulfilled its promise made last year to improve conditions at its Marange fields.
"The controversial Marange diamond fields have seen and continue to see quite a high level of human rights abuses and the militarization of mining," Annie Dunnebacke, a campaigner at the non-governmental organization Global Witness, told Deutsche Welle. Global Witness focuses its work on natural-resource related conflicts.
Only a small percentage of these raw diamonds are of gem quality
A report by KP investigator Abbey Chikane presented at the Tel Aviv conference argued that President Robert Mugabe's government had met the regulator's criteria in respect to the Marange diamond fields.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) has received new reports that soldiers are engaging in forced labor, torture, beatings and harassment in the Marange diamond fields around Chiadzwa, 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of the Zimbabwean capital Harare.
"It baffles us why Chikane would say exportation should go ahead because there's still smuggling in the fields, and the army has not been removed," said Tiseke Kasambala, senior researcher in HRW's Africa division.
"We are still seeing forced labor, beatings and torture, and the sexual assault of women," Kasambala told Deutsche Welle. "That is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the government of Zimbabwe and by the KP."
The European Union in a statement urged members of the certification scheme to put greater pressure on Zimbabwe to improve the situation of mine workers to meet the minimum standards set out by the KP.
It followed on the heels of a US appeal. Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the US State Department, said that Washington was "disappointed" that consensus was not reached in Tel Aviv.
"It is important that Zimbabwe address the ongoing diamond smuggling and human rights violations in and around the Marange diamond fields," Crowley told reporters.
Women in the Marange fields are often victims of violence and abuse by the security forces
But while every participant involved in the KP had a role to play in urging the government to take its responsibilities seriously, it was Zimbabwe's neighboring countries which could have the most clout, Dunnebacke said.
"Other African nations, including South Africa, have an extremely important role to play in pushing the authorities in Zimbabwe toward compliance," she said. "The Kimberley Process is incredibly important for all African diamond-producing countries."
The certification scheme had helped to bring more official diamond revenues to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, as well as reduce smuggling, she said.
"It has given international credibility and legitimacy to the diamond trade," Dunnebacke said. "It would be terrible for these African countries if the Kimberley Process was compromised and it's up to those governments to put pressure on Zimbabwe and to say, look, cut it out. You've got to play by the rules like the rest of us are trying to do."
Kasambala, however, said she felt the only remaining avenue to put pressure on the government of Zimbabwe was the KP itself. Key governments within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), such as South Africa, could exert great pressure. But it was more concerned with Zimbabwe as a whole.
South Africa had been instrumental in helping establish a fragile power-sharing government between President Robert Mugabe and opposition politician Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister, of the Movement for Democratic Change.
"SADC governments are more interested in the bigger picture and not necessarily in what's going on in the Marange diamond fields," Kasambala said. "So the KP seems to be the sole organization that can put political pressure on the government of Zimbabwe to improve the situation there."
Exports to go ahead
The Zimbabwean government does not appear to be feeling any pressure, though. According to the state-controlled daily newspaper, the Herald, the government has said it will immediately begin selling Marange diamonds on the international market.
Zimbabwe's Minister of Mines Obert Mpofu had already made this intention clear at the meeting in Tel Aviv. Mpofu had also belittled the role of NGOs in the KP.
Blood diamonds from Zimbabwe continue to find their way into jewelry stores worldwide
"The attitude the Zimbabwean authorities have shown to the Kimberley Process over the past 18 months has been difficult - to put it mildly," said Dunnebacke, who attended the KP conference. "We haven't always seen a high level of commitment or interest in respecting the rules and being compliant with Kimberley Process requirements."
However, Zimbabwe may have difficulties finding legal buyers for the gems until the KP reaches a consensus. Its 49 members, representing 75 countries, have agreed to only buy diamonds certified as "conflict-free."
Securing political power
Human rights organizations are now concerned that Mugabe and his powerful party ZANU-PF could use the funds from the fields to tighten their grip on power.
"The security forces that have been committing abuses in the Marange diamond fields answer to ZANU-PF," said Kasambala, who also attended the KP conference. "A key arm of this government of national unity is benefitting from smuggling in those diamond fields and is likely to use the revenue to commit further abuses, perhaps even during the next elections in Zimbabwe. That is what we're warning about."
The Marange fields are regarded as the wealthiest diamond find in the world in a century. The potential revenue for Zimbabwe from the area is estimated to run at $1 billion (0.8 billion euros) to $1.7 billion per year.
"There is very much concern that revenues from Marange are not going into state coffers, toward the unity government or development, but are going toward certain elite within the ZANU-PF and could be used for political violence at some point in the near future," Dunnebacke said.
The detention of a prominent human rights activist at the beginning of June illustrates the importance of this new-found wealth for the ZANU-PF. Authorities arrested Farai Maguwu, the director of the Center for Research and Development in eastern Zimbabwe, after he met with Chikane and briefed him on the human rights violations in the Marange mines.
"Essentially he's in prison because his NGO has been documenting and reporting on the abuses in the Marange diamond fields," Dunnebacke said.
Though human rights groups, the EU and the US have condemned Maguwu's arrest, Zimbabwean authorities refuse to release him on bail.
KP talks are due to resume on July 14 and 15 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge