A diamond mine in Africa
A diamond mine in Africa

Diamond industry executives and human rights groups are to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, this week to try and agree on whether Zimbabwe should be allowed to resume selling diamonds from its Marange fields. This is the second international meeting in less than a month to discuss whether diamonds from Marange should be certified, by the so-called Kimberley Process, for export and sale to international markets. Non-governmental organizations say human rights abuses continue in Marange as does smuggling by members of the elite close to President Robert Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF.

The 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone, with militias killing thousands of civilians, underscored the problem of so called blood diamonds that finance armed conflict.

Out of that came the Kimberley Process, a program that guards against the sale of gems that finance those conflicts.  Governments, industry executives and human rights groups signed onto it.

Since January, Zimbabwe has been barred, under the Process, from exporting diamonds from its controversial Marange fields.  

But Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, says the country will sell the diamonds, even without clearance, in other words on the black market. "We can sell our own diamonds our own way, any way," he said.

Briggs Bomba, director of campaigns at Africa Action, a Washington based non-profit group, says that would spark an international crisis. "With or without KP certification, there is a market out there that diamonds from  Zimbabwe can go to. So, what I see as the way forward is to really to speed up the process of making sure that whatever is outstanding in terms of Zimbabwe's meeting the KP requirements is resolved speedily and Zimbabwe is allowed to sell diamond through the KP process," he said.

Human rights groups accuse Zimbabwe of deploying its military in the Marange fields and killing and torturing civilians working there.  

There have also been allegations of smuggling and skimming of revenue by those close to President Mugabe and his ZANU PF party.

Diamond industry experts say Zimbabwe's diamond output could reach 25 percent of the global diamond supply.   

They say, without certification, so called conflict diamonds would re-enter the international market in a big way. And the Kimberley Process would become meaningless. In the extreme, some experts say, the US, the largest consumer of diamonds, could bar diamond imports.  

The Obama administration opposes any attempt to export Marange diamonds outside the Kimberley Process. "We look for Zimbabwe to make further progress implementing the necessary steps to bring the Marange diamond fields into compliance with Kimberley Process minimum requirements," said State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley.

Last month, a meeting of the Kimberley Process in Tel Aviv failed to reach a decision on Zimbabwe even though a KP monitor said Zimbabwe met the minimum conditions for certification.  

Some participants say the Kimberley Process can only deal with armed conflict and that does not apply to Zimbabwe. "They [the KP] have a specific definition for blood diamonds defined as diamonds being exploited by rebel groups to fuel conflicts. It was not designed to deal with state actors like it is in the case of Zimbabwe. So some people have already started to push for redefinition of blood diamonds," Bomba said.

Some say the international community should make an effort to understand the political reality of Zimbabwe and engage with its leaders.

"Let's not get caught up in the false polarities that characterize Zimbabwe discussions where it's Mugabe mania or Mugabe phobia. The challenge is how we break an objective path that brings back ordinary people to the center of discussion and how they are affected," Bomba said.

He fears that if the diamonds are sold in the black market, without KP certification, it will be difficult to monitor the revenue from those diamonds which should directly benefit the people of Zimbabwe, not a few corporations or government officials.