Zimbabwe, the Diamond Sanctions, and Us

Anyone hoping for a calm, productive Kimberley Process plenary later this month has to be disturbed by the reports coming out of the Zimbabwe Diamond Conference this week. If you just go by the press accounts, the whole thing seems kind of nuts. However, the people who did attend swear to me it was a surprisingly constructive affair that often featured frank discussions. One even called it the best diamond conference he’s ever been to. (Which, granted, is a pretty low bar.)

Now, of course, there were some off-key moments. Grabbing the most headlines was South Africa’s Abbey Chikane, who at one point reportedly told the current KP chair, Gillian Milovanovic, that she had a conflict of interest and should resign. (Never mind that the ambassador only has six more weeks in the job.) Chikane hasn’t returned my phone calls or emails, but I understand he later recanted the remark and declared he’d been misunderstood. And Milovanovic, ever the diplomat, told me today the incident is “finished, over, and done with,” though she admitted that the conference was at times “more confrontational than I would hope for.” 

Even so, that episode may be a mere dust-up compared to the firestorm brewing over World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff’s announcement that he will lobby the American and E.U. governments to drop their sanctions against Marange diamonds, pending approval of his board.

I spoke to a few WDC sources that were aghast at Izhakoff’s announcement—and they were not just the usual (American) suspects. And while the WDC head says he’s confident the board will okay his proposal, many U.S. and possibly European organizations could have serious objections. Jewelers of America has already said it will issue a statement against it.

Izhakoff’s main argument, which he made to me yesterday, is that the sanctions decrease transparency in Zimbabwe. Since the rules prevent Marange diamonds from being traded in dollars, the big shipping companies don’t handle them, making it impossible to track what is going on. He also says the trading restrictions disproportionately hurt locals on the bottom of the chain, while the ones on top—the people supposedly targeted—are still making plenty of money.

I’m sure that is all true; sanctions are a blunt instrument, and the powerful always find a way to protect themselves. Still, as we are witnessing in Iran and elsewhere, sanctions are one of the few tools outsiders have to influence events in a society like Zimbabwe. 

From my standpoint, this is a political thicket the WDC should not be wandering into. The sanctions currently enjoy bipartisan support. They were imposed by an executive order signed by former President Bush in 2003. President Obama shows no sign of reversing course.

Which means that any request made by the WDC would be strictly symbolic. But what a symbol! With the industry still struggling to escape its connection to Charles Taylor and his associated thugs in Sierra Leone, it’s distressing to think it will now stand firmly on the side of Robert Mugabe and his often-brutal government in Zimbabwe. This would represent a huge step backward for our industry, and the PR implications could be devastating. 

Clearly, there is a lot of anger in Africa, and in Zimbabwe in particular, over the sanctions. But keep in mind not all Zimbabwe diamonds are subject to them. Rio Tinto has a mine there, and it exports freely. That’s because the sanctions don’t target products; they target people. The reason some diamonds have been singled out is because Marange mines are owned by certain individuals on the sanctions list.

What do we know about those persons? “The sanction list is a pretty small one, and it’s very targeted,” Alan Martin, research director of Partnership Africa Canada, tells me. “It is limited to people who are accused of serious human rights abuses or corruption. It’s a pretty hard process to get on that list. It’s not something that’s done willy-nilly. Most of these people are known criminals or murderers.” 

And needless to say, “known criminals and murderers” are precisely the kind of people our industry should not be associating with, never mind be perceived as trying to help.

Changing the ownership of these mines is something the government of Zimbabwe has the power to rectify, if it wants to. It’s something opposition party leaders have repeatedly called for. But for now, the government isn’t doing it.  

In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the WDC says, or how many conferences Zimbabwe holds. The restrictions will not likely be lifted without significant reform measures from the government there. And if the industry really wants to make the sanctions go away, that’s what it should be pushing for.

JCK News Director