Conflict diamonds first gained prominence on the international stage following the extensive research on ‘Blood Diamonds’ conducted in the 1990s by international NGOs such as UK-based Global Witness and its Canadian counterpart Partnership Africa Canada (PAC).
This research described how unregulated diamond deals with rebels in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, caused untold suffering to these nations’ citizens. Rebels directly exchanged diamonds for weapons, which were then used against their own people in a quest for power.
Amongst the most notorious rebels benefiting from such deals was Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi of UNITA, which reportedly earned over $4billion from rough diamond sales between 1992 and 1997.
The conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone, full of brutal atrocities and crimes against humanity, took the lives of over a million people, funded and fuelled by the trade of diamonds.
The exposure of this darker side of the diamond industry led 37 diamond-producing states as well as partner NGOs to sign the Kimberley Certification Process Scheme (KP) in Switzerland on November 2002. KP was subsequently endorsed by the UN General Assembly Resolution 55/56.
Today, over 75 nations are engaged in the KP with the objective of stemming the flow of conflict diamonds, which are defined as those “used by rebel movements or allies to finance conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments”.
However, this definition is problematic and many argue that such an approach does not reflect today’s realities. Much of this controversy has centred on the diamond trade in Zimbabwe, eventually leading to the withdrawal of founding member Global Witness from the process in December 2011.
Over the past three years, President Robert Mugabe's government has been accused of human rights abuses including the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the new diamond mining fields of Marange, Manicaland Province in the east of Zimbabwe.
According to a Global Witness report, these deaths can be attributed to the “violent assaults by government security forces against diamond diggers and local communities”. It continues: “Hundreds of people have been killed, and many more have been beaten, raped and forced to mine for the army and police. But in the face of overwhelming evidence, the Zimbabwean authorities continue to deny that these abuses have occurred, and no-one has been held accountable.”
According to this same report, Global Witness notes that “the violence in Marange reached a peak in autumn 2008, with the arrival of the army, and the launching of Operation ‘Hakudzokwi’, or ‘You will not return’. This operation appeared to have two goals: to ensure control of the diamond deposits for the ZANU-PF elite, and to reward the army for its loyalty to this clique. More than 800 soldiers were deployed alongside helicopter gunships, killing over 200 people”.
Since events in Zimbabwe first reached the KP in 2008, little has been done to effectively address the situation. And, during the June 2011 Plenary Session of the KP in Kinshasa, the process’ chairman Mathieu Yamba unilaterally pushed for Zimbabwe’s diamonds to be cleared to re-enter mainstream diamond trade. At the session, the unrestricted sale of Marange diamonds was re-approved to the delight of many top-level Zimbabwean politicians.
The decision to abandon the KP by NGOs and other observers such as Ian Smillie points to the KP's lack of efficiency as well as its outdated mandate. Despite new regulation, ‘blood diamonds’ are a reality in many parts of Africa funding illegitimate groups and governments.
Additionally, artisanal miners continue to work under deplorable conditions and are often underpaid or unpaid. Child labour is an unfortunate reality in countries like Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, the DRC and Angola. Civil wars which were initially associated with diamonds may have subsided but the working conditions for most artisanal miners have not improved dramatically. Often these miners are abused by their own governments or the lucrative deals their leaders make with western businesses help sustain corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
The KP can only succeed if human rights triumph over politicking. With the US at the helm of the KP (as chair of its rotating chairmanship) many look to the US State Department to reconsider the plight of Zimbabweans and other Africans. On the one hand, progress looks unlikely especially as the KP continues to welcome new and questionable member countries such as Cameroon, whose leaders are implicated in well-documented human rights abuses.
On the other hand, there are some faint indications of a change of attitude on the horizon. Gillian Milovanovic, the current chair of the KP, for example, suggested on a visit to India that Zimbabwean diamonds may soon retain their illicit label.
“There is an urgent need to redefine the term 'conflict diamond'” said Milovanovic, adding, “I consider Zimbabwe diamonds as ‘products under sanction'”.
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