The Kimberley Process problems beyond human rights at Marange

Jul 12, 2011

It is becoming increasingly clear that the on-going controversy over whether Zimbabwe's Marange diamonds should have Kimberley Process certification is much more than about government human rights abuses there. Refusal by the Mugabe government to transparently commit to lifting doubts about conditions there have clearly harmed the country's diamond marketing prospects. But there are also problems with some opponents of the Mugabe government wanting to use the KP to make points and for purposes for which the certification scheme was not designed.

An opinion piece on the Fox News website illustrates some of the difficult underlying issues of the position of the KP members opposed to certification of Marange diamonds. Author Roger Bate is described as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.

Bate shows the problems with his very first sentence, when he asks, ''Could your new diamond engagement ring be supporting Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe?''

This is a question that every diamond customer would have to answer to their own satisfaction, assuming they know that what they are contemplating buying is a Marange stone. But it is a question that is beyond the purview of the KP. It reflects the opinion of Bate (and the many other Westerners for whom Mugabe is irredeemably evil) but it is simply not the business of the KP to make moral judgements on a country's regime in the broad way suggested by Bate's question.

The issue of whether the Zimbabwe army killed people by the hundreds at Marange, including reportedly from helicopters, is indeed a serious human rights issue which Zimbabweans, and all others in the world, should seek answers to and assurances that it will not happen again. On this score the KP is within its own bounds, and this is an issue that would be important even if the KP did not exist.

But suppose new controls and regulations were put in place at Marange to satisfactorily deal with the concerns of certification opponents within the KP. Suppose also that outside of Marange, Mugabe's government continues to rule the country with the repression for which it has become known. KP certification requirements would have been strictly met at Marange, but Mugabe would still be the 'brutal dictator' of Bate's first sentence.

What then? Clearly that is a broad moral question for an individual diamond consumer, but once certification requirements have been met, whether the country's government is dictatorial or not is no longer an issue for the KP to grapple with. That has to be dealt with at other fora and at other levels, not by a technical trade grouping. That there are many people in the West who would like the KP to perform this additional moral/political function of showing disapproval of Mugabe's government is one of the biggest problems the KP faces.

Other diamond-producing countries may not have the notoriety in the West that Mugabe's does, but that is very different from saying diamond-mining conditions in those countries are exemplary. At least one reason so many of the non-Western KP member countries side with Zimbabwe on certification of Marange diamonds is because they know if the spotlight were turned on them, it would not be easy for them to be found in compliance. The alleged killing by soldiers of artisanal miners at Marange was indefensible, but not even Mugabe's opponents claim that it is an on-going sort of practice.

Saudi Arabia is by any measure a dictatorship, as are many other oil-producing countries. Does Bate worry about 'supporting a dictatorship' every time he fuels his car? If he does and he somehow acts on his moral concern, very good for him. But if not, it would merely be proof of the fact that many of the world's precious resources are extracted under conditions of troubling governance, to put it mildly.

The fact is that in the West Mugabe's style of despotism raises very different emotional and racial buttons than does Saudi Arabia's. And so for many Westerners the mix of the strongly negative emotions Mugabe raises in them, mixed with the strong romanticism of diamonds, cause the KP to have become a political football by which to score goals against Mugabe in ways that are really beyond the body's role.

What this means is that there probably isn't much that the Mugabe government could do, except perhaps to agree to put Marange operations fully under KP control (which it would never do), to win over Western KP-certification opponents like Bate. However, even if the narrow certification requirements were met in this way, it wouldn't satisfy the broader 'Mugabe is a brutal dictator generally' issues that have crept in. The KP wasn't designed to deal with these broader issues, isn't competent to do so and is not the right place for it anyway.

Bate goes on to give other examples of why Mugabe is such a nasty fellow to him.

''Although Mugabe’s autocratic ZANU PF party is in an uneasy coalition with the democratic MDC party run by Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC has no control over the military and it is the military that control the diamonds,'' he writes. This apposition of 'autocratic' ZANU-PF with 'democratic' MDC party is fascinating, especially coming from a political Fellow at a prominent think tank.

If the two parties are in a coalition government, brought about by their relative positions with regards to parliamentary seats, how is diamond-producing Zimbabwe despotic in a way that oil-producing Saudi Arabia, which does not even pretend to allow even a sham democracy, is not? Zimbabwe is certainly an imperfect democracy, but a democracy nevertheless, in a way that Saudi Arabia isn't at all.

In casting the MDC as the good guys versus the military-controlling ZANU-PF as the bad guys, Bate suggests that all would be fine if the MDC were in control. This may or may not be true: it is easy for the MDC to pose as the democrats and impress people like Bate from their current position of opposition-within-the-coalition-government, but the only real proof of their democratic credentials would be if and when the MDC comes to effective power. Now 'autocratic dictator Mugabe' was once hailed as a great democrat, including in the western capitals where he is now the devil incarnate. 

As far as the KP certification of Marange diamonds that Bate opposes is concerned, both the MDC and ZANU-PF have called for it. The two parties are in disagreement about how the diamond auctions are held and what is being/should be done with the money, but there is no disagreement between them on whether Zimbabwe should be able to openly sell its Marange diamonds. So the 'democratic' MDC is in collusion with the 'autocratic' ZANU-PF on this issue of trying to unleash 'blood diamonds' on innocent, human rights-loving western consumers of jewelry!

What is interesting here is that by introducing his partisan sympathies, Bate appears to re-enforce the impression that the issue of concern is more Mugabe's perceived 'badness' than strictly what the operating conditions are at Marange.

The MDC may be the effective 'junior' partner of the coalition, but as long as they willingly remain a part of it, they bear joint responsibility for its actions, whether they like it or not. When the MDC's international sympathisers overlook this, especially the agreement of the two parties for the Marange diamonds to be KP-certified, it again appears that antipathy to Mugabe/ZANU-PF is more the real issue here than those that are talked about. 

That some Westerners are more troubled about the prospects of wearing Marange diamonds on their fingers than about having most of their daily energy needs fueled by oil from various kinds of dictatorships has more to do with the aforementioned particular western hostility to Mugabe than to human rights concerns per se.

This is how the KP has lost face outside the West, and continues to do so. This clearly very selective concern for human rights actually undermines the western authority to speak out about abuses at Marange, by making it seem the outrage is not about the suffering, neglected people of that area, but is more about the West's strong feelings against Mugabe.

So while there are real issues to be sorted out about the conduct of diamond mining at Marange, it also seems clear that the KP itself has a lot of internal conflicts to be resolved about its basic mandate as well. The Western members seem to see that mandate as much broader and further-reaching than do many of the other members who have sided with Zimbabwe on certification. Amidst this very political fight the best interests of the people of Marange are a propaganda tool of the various antagonists.

Bate say he visited Marange, where he found the locals subject to violence and intimidation by the army if they spoke to foreigners. This is not hard to believe, given the way the military has been used to cow the whole nation, and also from anecdotal accounts of people from Marange.

He writes, ''These scared workers had to dig out the diamonds and were paid a pittance for doing so. Some workers died from infected wounds that largely went untreated, partly because access to medical care was almost non-existent across the entire country. Other workers trying to escape the fields were allegedly shot by gunmen in helicopters. From the little I was able to actually see, their living conditions were very poor.''

''Had to dig out the diamonds and paid a pittance,'' has the whiff of forced labor. Bate does not say this, although other reports have made such a claim, but there is nevertheless the strong suggestion of coercion and exploitation. This would obviously be unacceptable, but this use of innuendo about what is or isn't going on at Marange dents the credibility of accusers of Mugabe's government as much as that government hurts its already battered image by its secretiveness and stubborn denial of any and all charges against it.

Zimbabwe is many things it should not be, but there is simply no recent history of forced labor as suggested by Bate's they ''had to'' phrase. Slave labor was last widely employed in the colonial era. Whatever else Mugabe's government may be guilty of, slave labor is certainly not one of them. But the average western reader of a piece like Bate's has been long primed by the imagery of Mugabe as an ogre that they would 'read' the article to mean he would not be beyond using slave labor at Marange. It is another part of the whole Mugabe-demonisation effort that has increasingly begun to creep into the Marange discussion.

It is entirely possible, even likely, that the artisanal miners are working for a pittance, and in very difficult conditions. But most are mining for themselves, in order to resell any diamonds they come across. Those who are working for a wage are likely to be paid very poorly, but this is no proof of coercion. Wages in Zimbabwe are very low in general, working conditions for most people poor. This is not a defense of those practices, but neither is the existence of such poor working conditions at Marange proof of ''human rights abuses by the brutal dictator Mugabe.'' Mugabe in his 31 years in power has racked up plenty of abuses to genuinely be held responsible for without fake ones having to be concocted.  
''Some workers died from infected wounds that largely went untreated, '' writes Bate. It is not clear if he means wounds from the hard physical labor of digging for diamonds with basic hand tools and no protective gear, or wounds from his following statement that, ''Other workers trying to escape the fields were allegedly shot by gunmen in helicopters.''

By not making it clear what precisely he means about the provenance of the wounds, the reader is free to make their own interpretation. But given how we have been carefully told what a bad dude Mugabe is, it is not hard to figure out the likely conclusion of the average western reader: Mugabe is not only autocratic, he is a slave driver who shoots his slaves from helicopters for fun, and then denies the wounded slaves medical attention!

This is a significant part of the level at which the KP Marange diamonds-certification issue is being fought. Nebulous charges are made with no clarity or proof. They are believed in some quarters because Mugabe's government has such a mythological 'badness' in those quarters. That government has been under such  sustained western attack for all sorts of things that its default position is to shut down and refuse to listen to any criticism from there, and to accuse its western detractors of not being willing to settle for anything less than Mugabe's head on a platter.

Bate's article is the opinion of one man writing in his personal capacity. But it very nicely encapsulates the many underlying issues around the Marange diamonds and their certification by the KP that may not be spoken openly, but that very much inform the tussle between the pro and anti-certification camps. 

It is difficult to see a short term solution to the impasse that would be acceptable to the opposing camps. But what seems clear is that there are really no actors in the fight whose position is entirely noble or entirely about 'human rights' and the best interests of the people of Marange. Bate's article is a perhaps unintentional example of how many other issues far removed from the situation at Marange are at play in the propaganda war over these diamonds.

This widening of the issues that are influencing the pro and anti stances also gives the Kimberly Process the thankless task of considering certification on the basis of political matters far beyond its mandate or its competence.


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