Is the ongoing Kimberley Process impasse on Marange still about human rights?

Jul 9, 2011

After the disputed go-ahead by the current chairman of the Kimberly Process, Zimbabwe's Marange diamonds are reportedly moving on international markets again. But the controversy over them continues to rage, with the people of Marange seemingly becoming everybody's football in the increasingly political fight.

A report this week said a consignment of Marange diamonds held up in Dubai (because of the now lifted ban by the KP on their trade) had been released and was on its way to India. However, the confusion over them raised by the dissent on lifting the ban by western members of the KP is still evident. One report indicated that diamond processors in India were eagerly awaiting shipments from Marange in light of the KP chairman's recent announcement that Zimbabwe could now freely market them. But another quoted a representative of the Indian diamond industry as saying they were not comfortable accepting the diamonds without the consensus of all KP members.

The Marange diamonds are therefore in a grey area of not being fully contraband, but not being fully 'clean' either. Whatever the usual bravado and tough talk from the Mugabe government, this is not the unambiguous endorsement of the diamonds that would have maximally benefited the country. They will still find markets, but they will be somewhat tainted precious stones.

But is the western opposition to the certification of the Marange diamonds still about concerns of human rights abuses by the government? That they took place in trying to bring order to the early free-for-all at Marange seems beyond doubt. Anecdotal accounts from residents in the area confirm that the Mugabe government acted with characteristic brutality and callousness. Its denial of those abuses was not helped by the secrecy and reluctance to allow even Zimbabwean parliamentary investigators, let alone KP or other foreign investigators access to find out what happened, and whether the situation has changed, if only because of the worldwide negative publicity. According to one recent report, even the country's prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, was denied the chance to visit the diamond fields. This suggests a regime with a lot to hide.           

So no one is sure if the alleged government abuses that caused the Marange furore are a thing of the past, or if they have become chronic. Not only is there no evidence of seriousness about making sure the people of Marange also benefit from diamonds, another major KP concern, but the country's finance minister is not even fully in the picture about how much is being mined and sold, and where the money is going.    

Although the antagonists continue to cast their opposition in human rights terms, that seems to increasingly be falling by the wayside, to be replaced by the on-going fight between the Mugabe regime and western countries over seemingly everything.

The Mugabe government has everything to gain by showing more seriousness about squarely addressing abuse issues, both in terms of human rights and greater transparency in the mining, marketing and local benefits issues of the diamonds. That would be the right thing to do, but also the best and most effective way of putting to rest the opposition to the certification of the Marange diamonds. Even if the western countries continued to oppose it, greater transparency on the issues of concern would make it easier for alternative markets to defend their decision to continue to buy the diamonds.

But as with so many other issues, the Mugabe government is far more motivated by being seen to be defying the western countries than to be seen to be doing the right thing for its citizens, and for its own reputation. The impasse over the Marange diamonds is an example of the costs of its now default strategy to any criticism: it has 'won' over its western KP detractors, but in a way that is really not much of a victory in practical terms.

An example is how Mugabe, before the recent KP meeting in Kinshasa, maintained that the Zimbabwe would sell its Marange diamonds whether it received certification or not. Why then pretend to be willing to comply with KP rulings? At the very least, it was an unwise, though very characteristically Mugabe-esque thing to say publicly. His famed western-defiance was on display again, no doubt to the delight of his admirers, but that is the kind of posture that only stiffened western resistance at the subsequent KP meeting, raising the bar of what was needed to break this now long-running impasse.      

One of the effects of the Mugabe government having survived a decade of relentless western diplomatic and economic pressure is that it is no longer willing to compromise in its dealings with the west, even when it would be strategically advantageous. The 'concessions' that are being asked of the Mugabe government over the Marange diamonds are relatively minor compared to the benefits. There are no huge 'sovereignty' issues involved in showing willingness to prove to the world that whatever bad things might have happened at Marange, the right lessons have been learned and a plan is in place to prevent recurrence. The high cost of refusing some negotiated version of acceding to these reasonable demands is the Marange diamonds continuing to be considered sleazy, if not quite 'bloody.'

On the other side is also evidence of a hardening of positions that is not helpful to breaking the impasse, and that is no longer just about human rights and the best interests of the people of Marange.

The US government issued a statement after Kinshasa saying it was ''deeply disappointed with the decision, which was not achieved with the full consensus of the group.''

It went on to quite reasonably add, '' The Kimberley Process can only work when producing and consuming countries collaborate. We welcome the work being done on effective diamond sector governance by a number of producing countries.''

But the US couldn't resist injecting some self-praise: ''Important contributions are also being made by USAID and the US Geological Survey as we work to improve internal controls and overall development outcomes in the artisanal diamond sector.''

This was startling for at least two reasons. One, it was absolutely irrelevant to the main point of the statement, expressing the US government's disapproval of the KP DRCongo chairman's announced approval of exports of Marange diamonds. Two, the point about the US government's role in the diamond mining sectors of other countries was also notable for its irrelevance to the issue at hand. Was it an offer of US help as Zimbabwe's seeks to regularise diamond mining at Marange? Is the Mugabe government's shutting out of western diamond players there a part of the west's outrage? Is all this partly about the anger of western countries that are used to being obeyed by African countries?

Western 'aid' such as that mentioned in the statement also means that the US government gets to know more about the 'helped' sector, something the Mugabe government would certainly be opposed to, as the US government does or ought to know. Like Mugabe's statement, this was just the wrong thing to say given the present deep suspicions and hostility between his government and that of the US.   

Alan Martin from Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), one of the civil society groups who are part of the KP,     is quoted as saying, ''Africa has shot itself in the head and is effectively wasting political capital by shoring up a bunch of crooks and thugs in Zimbabwe, and not recognising that the industry is at stake.''  

He explained that diamond traders, cutters, polishers and even consumers “are going to turn to other sources that will guarantee their diamonds are not sourced badly,” explaining that the whole of Africa is being viewed negatively because of Zimbabwe.

“This could be the worst thing to happen to African diamond producing countries since the wars of West Africa,” Martin said.

This kind of accusatory moralising by westerners simply doesn't play well in Africa! Even when it comes from a western country with a 'clean' reputation not tainted by having been a former/present colonialist/imperialist in Africa like Canada. It will only strengthen the belief of African and other non-western KP members that indeed, the fight over certifying the Marange diamonds is really motivated by much broader western antipathy to Mugabe's government than about the welfare of the people of Marange.


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