Zimbabwe restarts diamond sales amid 'blood diamond' accusations

'Blood diamond' watchdog, the Kimberly Process, supervised the $72 million diamond sale Tuesday, but a human rights group claims miners work at gunpoint.

By , Correspondent

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    Abbey Chikane of the Kimberley Process shows the certificate awarded to Zimbabwe following their granting of a Kimberley Process certification in Harare, Aug. 11. Zimbabwe began selling millions of carats of rough diamonds Wednesday that were mined from an area where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped women, and forced children into hard labor.
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Zimbabwe reentered the legal diamond market this week with Tuesday's $72 million sale of 900,000 carats of the gems. The sale was supervised by an international 'blood diamond' watchdog group amid ongoing allegations that the Zimbabwean military is abusing gem miners and forcing them to work at gunpoint.

CNN reports that it was Zimbabwe's first sale of diamonds since being barred from the market when its military seized control of the country's Marange diamond fields in 2008. BBC News reports that diamond sales could bring the impoverished country some $1.7 billion per year.

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The World Diamond Council in mid-July authorized Zimbabwe to carry out two supervised exports of rough diamonds by September with oversight from the Kimberley Process, a watchdog group.

"If this is a victory for anyone, it is a victory for the Kimberley Process," Kimberley Chair Boaz Hirsch said in a statement at the time. "The past several months have been difficult, but they have clearly demonstrated that not only does the Kimberley Process have teeth, it also is able to achieve results."

The Kimberley Process group, consisting of representatives from 75 countries involved in the diamond trade, was set up in 2002 to prevent the global market from trading diamonds mined by rebel groups to fund armed resistance against established governments.

This week, the so-called "blood diamonds" have been a prominent topic in the United Nations war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, as both British model Naomi Campbell and American actress Mia Farrow have appeared as witnesses concerning Mr. Taylor's alleged gift of blood diamonds to Ms. Campbell in 1997.

But while the Kimberley Process aims to stop abuses by rebel groups, Human Rights Watch argues that the watchdog has consciously disregarded similar abuses by governments themselves. In a June 22 report, HRW says that more than 200 people were killed when the Zimbabwean military seized the Marange diamond fields in 2008. Local villagers, including children, are now forced to mine the diamonds at gunpoint, HRW says.

Despite HRW's publicity of these alleged human rights violations, the World Diamond Council and the Kimberley Process still approved Zimbabwe's reentry to the diamond market:

The governments who initially formed the Kimberley Process agreed only to exclude diamonds that were financing rebel groups. They didn’t include diamonds that were financing abusive governments – although obviously, as a practical matter, it hardly matters who the soldier who is beating you is working for. But many members of the Kimberley Process have questionable human rights records of their own, and they don’t want to suspend Zimbabwe from the group.

Members of the Kimberley Process know what’s going on. They’ve read the reports from Human Rights Watch and other groups, and their own fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe last summer confirmed the basic story. But now, its own monitor on the ground in Zimbabwe has stepped forward to muddy the waters. Deputized by the Kimberley Process last fall to report back on whether Zimbabwe diamonds could be certified as “clean,” the monitor, an eminent South African diamond expert named Abbey Chikane, last week issued a report giving Zimbabwe the thumbs-up.

According to the independent news website Zimbabwe Online, two "little known" South African companies, Mbada and Canadile, are running the Zimbabwe mines in cooperation with the state-run Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation. Critics accuse the companies of being fronts for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's political and military allies.

Zimbabwe Online also reports that the military is still running mining operations in the region "where soldiers are openly operating and they are using illegal miners to dig for diamonds for a fee and then share the spoils," according to an illegal miner.

National Public Radio writes that the original investigators for the Kimberley Process recommended that Zimbabwe be expelled from the group for its seizure of the diamond fields, but that the group may have been forced into what a member of the Global Witness watchdog group calls a "weak compromise."

The compromise was reached after a Zimbabwe court released human rights activist Farai Maguwu, who was jailed for more than a month after publicizing abuses at the diamond fields.

Human rights groups say the deal also helped avert a crisis in the international diamond market, since President Robert Mugabe was threatening to sell stones without certification.

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