Why Industry Leaders Shouldn’t Brag About Zimbabwe Diamonds

At a diamond meeting a few years back, a group was taking a picture that included a controversial Zimbabwe minister. At least one participant stayed out. “I don’t want to be in a picture with someone who might end up tried for war crimes,” he said. Smart policy, I thought. I stayed out of the picture, too.

A few weeks back, I wrote about negative perceptions of our industry and how they are often unfair. So I will add that comments like this don’t help:

Belgium has again faced criticism from concerned Zimbabweans after an official from the Antwerp diamond center admitted they lobbied [the European Union] on ZANU PF’s behalf for the removal of targeted sanctions.

Antwerp World Diamond Council (AWDC) chief executive Ari Epstein told a recent parliamentary meeting in Harare that he “made a commitment” to former Zim mines minister Obert Mpofu to lobby for the removal of the European restrictions, in exchange for the sale of Chiadzwa diamonds in Belgium.

James Mupfumi, the acting director of the Centre for Research and Development (CRD), said that Belgium was thinking “only of its business interests” in its campaign for the removal of the targeted sanctions. 

The story, from SWradioafrica.com, a site that is often critical of the Mugabe government, characterized Epstein’s remarks as a “confession.” And yet, they come across more as a boast. Which shows an extraordinary difference in perceptions.

Having spoken to people at the AWDC, I know many there feel that they did the right thing in getting sanctions removed, arguing that selling via Antwerp will increase transparency in Zimbabwe. Spokeswoman Karen Rentmeesters points me to a study from the NGO Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which shows that a recent Antwerp tender led to a dramatic increase in the amount Zimbabwe received for its goods. Yet, as that study admits, it remains unclear where that increased revenue is going, as only a fraction of current proceeds land in the country’s treasury. (I’ve asked the AWDC for a fuller presentation of its views, which I will print as a response to this post next week.) 

Marange diamonds are a fact. They are part of our industry. They do trade at a something of a discount, because many consider them undesirable, as they are still illegal in the United States due to OFAC sanctions. (Which, as far as I know, no U.S. organization has lobbied to remove.) With all the talk of “adding value” to Zimbabwe diamonds, the country’s leaders could increase prices by addressing issues of corporate holdings and governance, which might get American sanctions lifted. But it doesn’t seem like anyone in power in Zimbabwe is willing to do that.

Given that Marange diamonds have been associated with corruption and past allegations of pretty sickening violence, organizations and companies should proceed with extreme caution when buying those goods. Clearly things have improved a lot in the region since 2008 and 2009. But reports of problems remain—see herehere, here, and here. (And there’s more where those came from.) Perhaps some of these reports are exaggerated. I can’t believe all of them are.

After former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted for war crimes stemming from the blood diamond wars in Sierra Leone, I wrote this:

The diamond industry is now permanently linked in history books with the terrible story of Charles Taylor. That can’t be changed. Going forward, we have to ask ourselves: Do we want the Robert Mugabe story to read the same way?

President Mugabe is now 90 years old. When he dies, the public record isn’t likely to be flattering. And when the history of the last years of his life is written, it’s worth asking how the role the diamond industry played will look as well.

This industry is under a microscope—deservedly so, because not everything that has happened in the past is something to be proud of. When industry leaders enthusiastically embrace a controversial diamond source, one has to ask: Are we stumbling into yet another PR fiasco over the origins of our product?

To put it another way, you don’t want to have your picture taken with people who some day could be accused of war crimes. But that is what this industry is doing. Again.

JCK News Director