A mine in Marange, Zimbabwe
A mine in Marange, Zimbabwe. The area may contain a quantity equal to a quarter of the world’s diamonds. Photo by AP
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Possible human rights abuses in Zimbabwe have made strange bedfellows of Israel's Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and Human Rights Watch, normally a harsh critic of Israeli policies.

So it came as no shock when Human Rights Watch associate director Carroll Bogert suddenly cut off an interview in a Tel Aviv hotel lobby to jump up and excitedly shake the hand of Boaz Hirsch, who heads the Foreign Trade Administration at the ministry.

"He and your minister said wonderful things, which came as a good surprise to us. I have to thank him for that," Bogert explained.

The friendly encounter occurred during a break at the conference of the Kimberley Process, the international forum aimed at preventing trade in so-called "blood diamonds" - gems used to finance armed struggles and civil wars in Africa.

The forum is made up of members of major diamond industry organizations, non-governmental organizations and representatives of nearly 70 countries connected to mining, cutting and trading diamonds. Last week the forum met for the first time in Israel, which is serving as chairman this year.

At the center of the conference, with more than 40 countries in attendance, was the issue of human rights in Zimbabwe.

According to Bogert, Hirsch, who is Israel's representative at the conference and hence its chairman, "said very firm and unambiguous things about actions the international diamond industry needs to take against the human rights violations there."

'Life is hell'

The issue of Zimbabwean human rights arose in February 2006, after the British diamond company African Consolidated Resources purchased the rights to mine diamonds in a 405-square-kilometer swath in Marange, in eastern Zimbabwe. According to expert witnesses in the area, ACR believes a quantity equal to nearly a quarter of all the diamonds in the world could be found there.

Eight months after the discovery, the government of Zimbabwe nationalized the mine and the representatives of ACR were expelled. Now two government companies are mining there. The dispute over the ownership of the land is currently before the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe. From reports in the local media, its seems the court is tending to favor ACR, which is suing to regain ownership of the mine.

After the company was expelled, hundreds of locals started mining diamonds there with spades. Word of the treasure buried beneath the financially wracked country spread through Africa, and people flocked there from all over the continent. Violent fights broke out and the government of Zimbabwe sent in the army. About 200 people were killed in the clashes.

In the wake of these events and in preparation for the conference that discussed them, about two years ago Abbey Chikane, a founder of the Kimberley Process, was sent to Zimbabwe to look into the claims concerning human rights violations. He came back with conclusions to the effect that the work in the mines does meet the criteria of the Kimberley Process, and that the accusations against Zimbabwe undermined the state's sovereignty and its laws and had no connection to the process's mandate.

Carroll Bogert came to the conference along with the organization's monitor in Zimbabwe, Tiseke Kasambala. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations working in Zimbabwe say the army controls the mining zone. The organization reports that the government of Zimbabwe lodges workers' families there without providing minimal infrastructures for water, electricity, roads and schools for the children.

According to Kasambala, army officers collect protection money from the miners and some of this money ends up in the pockets of senior government officials. Soldiers are also allegedly involved in trafficking in children and forced laborers, and beating and harassing workers.

In the organization's report, Kasambala cites a regional official who said: "Soldiers routinely force us to mine for diamonds; if anyone refuses they are tortured. Life in Marange is hell."

According to Kasambala, most of the profits from the diamond industry go to an exclusive group within the country. She also says the black market for Marange diamonds is involved in human rights violations and financing violence in various parts of Africa.

Limited mandate

Bogert and Kasambala described the dangers facing local human rights activists who try to criticize the corrupt system. A key activist named Farai Maguwu was arrested by the police after he told Chikane about what was happening.

The Kimberley Process forum, which was established a decade ago in Kimberley, South Africa, set a standard starting in January 2003, mandating that rough diamonds be traded only among countries that are members of the process, and every shipment of diamonds be properly documented. Such a process will ensure that payment for gems does not go to armed militias involved in African civil wars.

The Kimberley Process came into the world in the wake of a campaign by human rights organizations, who brought to public attention the fact that part of the diamond trade, mostly in Africa, was financing armed militias and rebel groups engaged in bloody civil wars, like those in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and Sudan - some of which are still raging.

The international diamond industry has adopted the process, which was created under the aegis of the UN, partially out of humanitarian motives, but also knowing that rejecting it would harm its glamorous image.

In Zimbabwe, Bogert and Kasambala are demanding that the army be removed from the mines. They are asking for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Kimberley Process and for all diamonds coming out of its territory to be defined as blood diamonds, also called conflict diamonds.

The official Harare government position, as presented by its mines minister, Obert Mpofu, who participated in the conference, is that the claims are baseless and are unrelated to the Kimberley Process.

In an official statement issued by his ministry prior to the conference, Mpofu said the complainants are undermining a sovereign country and its laws. In closed conversations he claims "all the measures they are trying to take against Zimbabwe now have no connection to the Kimberley Process or the diamond industry in general." Rather, he says, "there is a colonialist attempt here to disparage the country and control its natural resources." Edahn Golan, the editor in chief of IDEX Online, an important international diamond industry website, says: "The limitation of the program is that it wasn't created to deal with genocide, rape or corruption. These things aren't in the Kimberley mandate at all. There are other organizations whose business this is: the UN, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the human rights organizations.

"The debate now is whether the Kimberley Process can expand its primary mandate and address such issues, too. Everyone agrees that what is being done there is morally ugly, but Zimbabwe, which outwardly is a democracy, is a sovereign state recognized by the UN. Its case is different from those of blood diamonds mined in areas controlled by rebels or illegal organizations. The question at the moment is whether the international diamond industry should be the organization that criticizes and punishes Zimbabwe."

Corruption and human rights violations in Zimbabwe are liable to hurt the image of the diamond industry. However, too much pressure on Zimbabwe may make it withdraw from the process. The fear is that the market will be flooded with a very large quantity of smuggled diamonds, and the power of the Kimberley Process will be severely diminished.

"We really are walking a tightrope here, and hoping it won't tear along the way," says Hirsch. "Our position is unambiguous: There will be no compromise on the minimal standard of the Kimberley Process. Eight months ago we inaugurated an external supervisory mechanism, which comes and says in effect that Zimbabwe, as a sovereign state, cannot export diamonds without certification by this mechanism. A sovereign state is bound by the process based on consensus, and we see the mechanism as something that can bring changes. This will not change the nature of the regime in Zimbabwe but we do not see any organization that has succeeded in doing this in the past. Kimberley is a mechanism that is enforced. The debate is about the extent of its success and applicability."