The government of Israel has a chance to exercise valuable leadership on a critical international human rights issue — and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Israel holds the annual chairmanship of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international body designed to choke off the trade in “blood diamonds.” On June 21-23, Tel Aviv will host the first of two big Kimberley Process conferences this year, with a unique collection of bedfellows who have come together to keep the diamond trade from harming innocent people: representatives from more than 75 countries, large-scale private diamond traders, multinational companies and civil society activists who have helped make “blood diamonds” a cause célêbre.
The diamond wealth of West Africa provoked — and financed — a series of vicious local wars in the 1990s, and the Kimberley Process was meant to stem the public relations disaster that subsequently threatened the revenues of everyone from De Beers and the Kremlin to the corner jewelry shop. Consumers don’t like the idea that their engagement ring helped buy weapons that slaughtered thousands of civilians. Hollywood helped raise the profile of the issue with a Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster set in Sierra Leone in 1998.
An unusual blend of human rights idealism and commercial motives, the Kimberley Process is not an easy gathering to chair. Israel will have to deal with perhaps the most vexing issue of its chairmanship: what to do about diamonds from Zimbabwe.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe keeps himself in power by stealing elections, trumping up legal charges against members of the opposition and civil society, and having his political enemies tortured and even killed. He has reduced Zimbabwe, a country that had one of the highest levels of productivity and education in southern Africa, to a state of pitiful economic collapse. And now, in his late 80s, he has been blessed with a fantastic piece of serendipity: the discovery of potentially very large diamond fields in the eastern part of his bankrupted country. Those diamonds are helping to keep him in power.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the extensive human rights crimes that Mugabe’s henchmen committed in the takeover of the Marange diamond fields: the killing of at least 200 people, including local residents and artisanal miners; the forced labor of villagers, including children, who must turn over any diamonds they discover to the soldiers in control; the beating and torture of those who challenge that control. On a follow-up mission to the country last month, we surreptitiously interviewed dozens of residents, witnesses, local human rights activists and others, whose collective assessment could be summed up in the words of one community leader: “Life in Marange is hell.”
The question is what the Kimberley Process is going to do about it. Its own fact-finding mission last year largely confirmed Human Rights Watch’s findings, but not our urgent recommendation: to suspend Zimbabwe from the Kimberley Process entirely. Instead, at the last meeting in November, under the chairmanship of Namibia, members agreed to a work plan that Zimbabwe itself proposed, promising to withdraw the military from Marange at some unspecified time in the future, and appointed a “monitor” to certify the country’s diamond shipments.
Zimbabwe has failed to withdraw the military, which continues to commit abuses in Marange, but the monitor, Abbey Chikane, recently recommended in his report that the country has satisfied the minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process. Worse, a Zimbabwean civil society activist who met with Chikane is now in prison for possession of leaked official documents on the presence of the military in Marange. As chair of the Kimberley Process, Israel should speak out at once about this troubling incident.
Getting a majority of states to support the suspension of Zimbabwe will not be easy. But if Zimbabwe’s diamonds are traded freely on international markets, that will undermine consumer confidence — and profits. Already, enough diamonds are being smuggled out of Marange — via Mozambique, South Africa and a local airstrip that enables the government to evade international scrutiny — to threaten the fundamental integrity of the Kimberley Process itself.
In the past, Israel has joined with allies such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom in calling for stronger action on Zimbabwe. Bringing about that result will require real diplomatic legerdemain from the Israeli chair, Boaz Hirsch. If he continues to stand on principle, international human rights activists — and many of the world’s leading diamond retailers — will be rooting for his success.
Rona Peligal is the acting Africa director for Human Rights Watch.