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Zimbabwe Court Issues Ruling on Diamond Sale Controversy

Women miners search for diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe's lucrative Marange diamond fields.

[Please note that this story has been superseded by later information from Zimbabwe and a portion of it is no longer completely accurate. The Harare Supreme Court has not lifted its order halting diamond mining activity by Zimbabwe and sales of the country's diamonds on world markets. The court has allowed the government's existing appeal of the case to proceed, but for the time being previous orders remain in effect. In any case, the comments by Elly Harrowell of Global Witness included in the story below are accurate. We plan to move a new story from Harare explaining the nuances of Tuesday's court ruling, which appears to have been misinterpreted by some media in Zimbabwe.]

Zimbabwe’s suspension of diamond mining activities and sales from its Marange fields may soon be coming to an end. Tuesday, the Harare Supreme Court gave the widely criticized mines, which the debt-ridden government has controlled since 2006, the go-ahead to sell up to 129,000 carats of the precious stones on world markets.

Zimbabwe Mines Minister Obert Mpofu
Zimbabwe Mines Minister Obert Mpofu

Mines minister Obert Mpofu reaffirmed the country’s intention to defy, if necessary, the Kimberley Process, which monitors workers’ conditions, regardless of whether the international watchdog accedes to a lifting of the stoppage.

Tuesday’s judgment was reached during a court battle over ownership rights to the minerals between the government and U.K.-owned African Consolidated Resources (ACR), which ran the mines until October, 2006. From London, Elly Harrowell of the anti-corruption group Global Witness says the ruling could prove harmful to the Zimbabwe government.

“We would warn the Zimbabwe government that if it goes ahead and exports diamonds from the Marange field, this will be in direct contravention of the agreement it signed with the Kimberley Process, and we will then be calling for their expulsion from this scheme,” she said.

The government of President Robert Mugabe seized the mine fields in its eastern region three and a half years ago and has supervised the production of 4.4 million carats of gemstones between that time and February of this year, when it complied with a court order to halt operations, due to its legal fight with ACR.

Zimbabwe Court Issues Ruling on Diamond Sale Controversy
Zimbabwe Court Issues Ruling on Diamond Sale Controversy

International exports were stopped in 2009 to accede with Kimberley Process demands to avert the sale of so-called blood diamonds, whose profits are cited for fueling subversive conflicts in neighboring countries.

Zimbabwe has also faced international human rights condemnation for failing to observe compassionate labor standards for its miners, who are said to endure harsh conditions and extremely low pay. Elly Harrowell of Global Witness points out that inhumane treatment was the prime force behind last year’s restrictions by the Kimberley Process.

“I can’t imagine that any consumer or person who goes to buy their girlfriend an engagement ring will be happy to know that that diamond was produced in a context where helicopter gunships came in and shot down hundreds of miners in the fields, where women have been raped, where people have been attacked with dogs. To me, that’s pretty clear that’s a blood diamond,” she noted.

Harrowell acknowledges that Zimbabwe mining cannot be equated with producing the same type of blood diamonds that have been used to fuel rebel conflicts in Angola, Liberia, or Sierra Leone. But she places full blame on the Mugabe government for the injustices that flourish at the Marange fields and urges a greater international protest.

“It’s the (Zimbabwe) government itself which is abusing its own citizens. That’s the excuse that most governments use not to step in, because they say conflict diamonds aren’t the problem, they don’t exist. Whereas the government is abusing its own citizens. We say, it doesn’t matter who is killing people. People shouldn’t be dying because of diamonds,” she said.

There is still a possibility for Harare to demonstrate its compliance with the Kimberley Process to avoid facing expulsion from the group and resume diamond sales. Harrowell says receiving Kimberley approval would require a new certification mission to reexamine Zimbabwe’s accession to international standards.

“First of all, the Kimberley Process monitor would have to return to Zimbabwe. Once he is satisfied that the diamond sales are compliant with the minimum standards of the Kimberley Process, then he can go ahead and start certifying that diamonds can be exported into international markets. It’s very difficult to say when that will happen. It depends on progress on the ground,” she explained.

Zimbabwe Court Issues Ruling on Diamond Sale Controversy
Zimbabwe Court Issues Ruling on Diamond Sale Controversy

The Global Witness campaigner voiced concern about a weakness in the Kimberley provisions that limit investigators it sends from monitoring human rights violations. She notes that last month’s Kimberley mission and probe of Zimbabwe’s standards of compliance failed reflect the enormous personal suffering of the miners and she says Global Witness is recommending that Kimberley organizers expand their responsibilities to help human rights groups track these abuses in conflict zones.