By Tendai Marima, a freelance journalist.
Crafted through three years of negotiations, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was created in 2003 to curb the trade of diamonds by rebel and dissident government groups using gems to finance their insurrections. With the embers of civil war still smoldering in places, such as Angola, Libera, and Sierra Leone, the process was intended to reduce the trade of illegal diamonds on international markets.
Today, as a multilateral organization with more than 80 member states, dozens of industry stakeholders, and a broad-based civil society coalition, the Kimberley Process (KP) aims to ensure verified diamonds can be traced back to their point of origin. Since inception, KP has had notable success in stemming the flow of illicit gems, but problems persist.
Critics say the narrow definition of conflict diamonds—gemstones used by nonstate actors to finance battles—enables countries, such as the Central African Republic, where rebel gangs control large swathes of the country’s territory to trade in diamonds. Areas not in rebel hands, including the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, are recognized as “green zones,” conflict-free spaces where diamonds can be exported for sale because, controversially, they are deemed KP compliant.
Edward Asscher, president of the World Diamond Council, has called for a broadening of conflict diamonds to include those mined in areas facing human and environmental rights challenges. In a country like Zimbabwe, which is not experiencing active conflict, the KPCS’s effectiveness has been tested by a mining sector that lacks transparency and has, at times, engaged in gross human rights breaches.
Given this mixed record, Zimbabwe’s recent, successful bid for KP vice chair at the annual plenary held in Russia has concerned civil society stakeholders. They say the vice chair position could be an opportunity for Zimbabwe to reform, but with the ruling regime’s firm blood-stained grip on diamond fields, the country has a long, hard walk toward compliancy.
Faced with no objections, Zimbabwe’s acceptance as vice chair means approval for chair in 2023 could be just a formality. Botswana, previously vice chair, takes over from Russia in 2022. As chair, a country is tasked with ensuring KPCS implementation in member states and can authorize an investigative mission in situations where there is credible evidence a country might be trading in blood diamonds.
Asscher—who believes a broader definition of conflict diamonds would empower the KP to address abuse and corruption concerns in non-conflict countries more effectively—is “optimistic” that if Zimbabwe was given responsibility to chair, it could be an opportunity to clean up its industry. In turn, the government has hailed the nomination as a sign of greater efforts at international reengagement by the post-coup government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. However, Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, is skeptical and said the nomination shows the KP has ignored violations in Zimbabwe.
“The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is rapidly losing its relevance as a global diamond governance platform because of its failure to deal with serious human rights challenges in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields,” Mavhinga said. “If Zimbabwe becomes the chair of the KPCS in 2023, that will further undermine the credibility of the body.”
Local activist Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), which routinely documents allegations of brutality, rape, and extortion by security forces, shares similar concerns. Maguwu sees the KP role as largely ceremonial, but he argues as vice chair, the southern African nation is compelled to uphold KP standards of regular statistical revenue reporting and adhering to conflict-free verification mechanisms.
“This is an opportunity for Zimbabwe to clean up its act,” Maguwu told Foreign Policy. “There cannot be any semblance of injustice towards workers, communities, or the environment when the whole world is looking at Zimbabwe.”
Zimbabwe’s diamond industry was borne out of deep crisis. Its legacy of human rights violations dates back to shortly after the discovery of diamonds under now-deposed strongman Robert Mugabe.
U.K.-based firm African Consolidated Resources (ARC) announced one of the world’s largest finds of rough gems in recent history in 2000. ARC was evicted from the site in eastern Zimbabwe, and the state seized the Marange fields in 2006. As news of the discovery spread, fortune-seekers scrambled for the stones, but in October 2008 after the government decided mining should be formalized, the military launched a violent operation to restore order and secure the excavated landscape. More than 200 people were killed during Operation Hakudzokwi (Operation No Return), marking a bloody start to Zimbabwe’s venture into diamond mining.
Sales from Zimbabwe were temporarily halted, and although the KP later certified the country’s trade, Zimbabwe’s diamonds still cannot be sold on European or U.S. markets due to targeted sanctions. This is because the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe, a state enterprise with the sole responsibility of buying and marketing all minerals excluding gold, is under restriction. In 2019, the United States also banned imports of rough diamonds from Zimbabwe following claims that forced labor was being used to mine them.
Reports of unfair labor practices in Marange persist, and relations between the mines and village communities are tense. In the same month Zimbabwe was nominated as KP vice chair, 90-year-old Robert Chiadzwa, headman of Chiadzwa village, and 28 villagers were arrested after protesting mining company Anjin Investments’ lack of consultation. An obscure venture between Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group and Matbronze, an intermediary company for Zimbabwe Defence Industries, the investment wing of the Zimbabwean military, Anjin has been at odds with the people of Chiadzwa because of its perceived over-securitization of an area that is their traditional homeland.
For years, the diamond fields have been sealed off with armed security forces at all checkpoints leading into villages within the mined areas. Residents are required to have special renewable car permits to allow them to move in and out of their homes. Without the permit, villagers cannot enter, and without a national identity card, they allege they are susceptible to harassment or physical assault by officers, according to witness testimonies documented by the CNRG in 2020.
Since the pandemic disrupted schooling, a report by Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) documented how young boys in Chiadzwa and Marange areas have joined illegal diamond mining syndicates. ZELA visited three unlicensed sorting and crushing bases where, purportedly, children work without any protective clothing, exposing them to risk of injury. Conditions in the open mine pits are poor, sites are poorly ventilated, and work hours are long. Moreover, to gain access to the concessions, prohibited artisanal miner gangs pay a percentage fee to the guards on duty. The CNRG estimates around 40 workers die each year.
Although there are no guarantees that widespread human rights violations in the mines and smuggling will stop, countries with unfavorable reputations have been nominated in the past and prompted to change their ways. Angola, a post-conflict country with a chilling history of conflict diamonds, was nominated to KP chair in 2015 and has a mixed record of reform.
While the country has a long way to go to improve an industry marred by cross-border smuggling and fraud, Angola has granted concessions to artisanal miners in a bid to formalize miners and stem the illicit trade. In 2015, the government awarded a select number of cooperatives rights to mine in an area around 193 square miles in the northern Cuango basin. Presently, Angola’s policy is focused on shifting away from multinational company and public organization dependence to push for greater equity for small-scale producers.
By contrast, it’s been difficult for Zimbabwe’s civil society and media to gain access to information on mining agreements or diamond revenue. Sales and stockpiles are shrouded in secrecy. According to the 2019 auditor-general’s report, stones worth an estimated $140 million cannot be accounted for due to variances in stock records. And although the auditor-general flagged this as a sign of potential corruption, gross irregularities in closing inventories continue to be reported. Controversially, in 2016, Mugabe claimed the country had lost more than $15 billion in diamond revenue, but he did not attend a post-coup parliamentary hearing on the topic when summoned in 2018. A series of reports produced by natural resource watchdog Global Witness alleges diamond revenue was used to finance the security and political elite during Mugabe’s era.
Zimbabwe’s economy is floundering, and the current murkiness in diamond mining revenue does not augur well for 2023, when hotly contested elections at the parliamentary and presidential level will take place; that year, Zimbabwe will also take over the KP chair. More than half of the country’s 15.2 million people are classified by the World Bank as “extremely poor” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s natural resources have been of little benefit to the impoverished majority, and if the Kimberley Process is to be meaningful to ordinary Zimbabweans, the dubious way business is done in the eastern gem fields might have to change radically and rapidly.
Still, some activists maintain the country’s ascent to KP leadership is a promising development. Shamiso Mtisi, a lawyer with ZELA, said Zimbabwe can no longer afford embarrassment as it will be expected to host KP dignitaries, lead review missions to member states, and host the annual plenary and half-yearly intersessional meetings.
“A country cannot violate the KP in the same year it holds an important position,” Mtisi said. “There is a lot of scrutiny, so this is the time for Zimbabwe to reform its way of doing things.”