Since coming into force in 2003 the Kimberley Process has made historic mileage in stemming the trade of blood diamonds. Appalled by the kind of horrors that played out in Sierra Leone – where Charles Taylor’s Revolutionary United Front proxies led legions of drugged child soldiers to hack apart their fellow citizens in a quest to control lucrative diamond mines, the world reacted and put in place procedures aimed to prevent such atrocities from ever reoccurring.
Seventy five states, the World Diamond Council and various civil society bodies committed to the universally recognised certification scheme- ensuring that traded stones were ‘conflict free’, thus removing the impetus for both violence over control of the mines and the use of forced labour or other abuses in them. The Kimberley Process was welcomed and celebrated by those who set it up - and those whose lives were transformed by its implementation.
But now it is falling apart.
Last month, under pressure from participating nations desperate to get their hands on Zimbabwean diamonds, the Kimberley Process’ Congolese Chairman Mathieu Yamba, declared that stones from the Marange Diamond Fields could now be certified. The outcry that followed was predictable – after all, how can legitimising the purchase of diamonds that will fund Robert Mugabe’s regime possibly meet the Process’ aims of promoting “peace and stability” or “stabilising fragile countries”? As if any of us need to be reminded, this is the tyrant who ran an election campaign involving at least 181 murders, denied the existence of a devastating cholera epidemic and provides his thugs with a dangerous level of impunity that threatens to generate further violence in the near future.
Worse still, the Marange Fields themselves have consistently been the sight of heinous human rights abuses including forced labour of women and children, sexual assaults by the police units in charge and even a massacre of some eighty three Zimbabweans presumed to be ‘illegal miners’. Whilst Mugabe and his backers including Jacob Zuma’s South African government, claim that things have improved on the ground, other states and human rights groups argue that abuses are still going on – and that, even if they were resolved, the bigger issue of diamond sales propping up Mugabe’s vile regime remains.
Debates are also continuing around whether Mr. Yamba’s seemingly unilateral decision to certify Marange Diamonds was even in keeping with Kimberley Process procedure – which has in the past worked on a basis of unanimity. What is strikingly clear however, is that if the expected flow of diamonds out of Zimbabwe and finances into Mr. Mugabe’s accounts begins, then the agreements and procedures are no longer worth the paper that they are written on. Dramatically, representatives of Global Witness – the inspirational human rights group at the forefront of bringing the Kimberley Process into being, walked out of the latest meeting and issued a public statement announcing their loss of confidence in it.
Throughout all of this, a silent but literally deadly hand has been played by the Chinese government, which though by no means acting alone, has been at the very forefront of facilitating exploitation of diamonds at the Marange fields, assisting in human rights abuses there and ultimately undermining the Kimberley Process. Their input has been no small matter- involving a the construction of a secret airstrip and the deployment of Chinese troops, allowing for a constant flow of guns in and diamonds out, even before the outrageous decision to certify the diamonds was taken. This, it is argued, naturally undercut the effectiveness of the Kimberley Process in practical terms and helped wet the appetite of those who then joined China in piling the pressure on Mr. Yamba to ‘legitimise’ the whole operation. Disturbingly, like so in many other states including Burma and Sudan, the people of Zimbabwe are now baring the brunt of China’s neo-imperialistic workings, where finance and influence comes before liberty or rights.
The entire incident has been a tragedy, which will inevitably generate disastrous repercussions throughout Africa for years to come, unless somehow the Kimberley Process is salvaged. To lay the entire blame for this at the door of the Chinese government would be wrong, considering Mr. Yamba’s own weakness and the support he received from others states such as South Africa, Bahrain, India and Lebanon. However, it would be wise for Presidents and Prime Ministers sitting down with Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and other Chinese leaders in the future, to reflect of their role in wrecking one of the most historic and positive advances that the world’s poorest continent had experienced this century.