Are Zimbabwe's Gems 'Blood Diamonds?'

Human rights activist Annie Dunnebacke of Global Witness talks to Mary Louise Kelly about the controversy over Zimbabwe's recently discovered diamond field. It's large enough to make the country one of the world's top diamond exporters. But allegations of human rights abuses have lead to questions over if the country's gems should be considered "blood diamonds."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

Now, to questions about diamonds and Zimbabwe. The southern African nation has the potential to be one of the world's top diamond exporters. But Zimbabwe also has a terrible record when it comes to human rights. And there are reports that Zimbabwe's military has raped, beaten and unleashed dogs on illegal miners.

Now, does that mean Zimbabwe's gems should be considered blood diamonds? And if so, should Zimbabwe be banned from exporting them? The issue went to an international diamond forum recently. Annie Dunnebacke was that meeting. She's with the rights group Global Witness and she joins me now.

Welcome.

ANNIE DUNNEBACKE: Hello.

LOUISE KELLY: So let me start, Annie Dunnebacke, by asking if you could paint a little bit of a picture of Zimbabwe's diamond riches.

DUNNEBACKE: Yes. The Marange diamond fields are a relatively recent discovery. They've been the theater - the scene of huge human rights abuses over the past three years, with the military coming in and shooting hundreds of miners from helicopter gun ships and ongoing rape and beatings.

So we've been very concerned about the human rights situation there. And, of course, about what that means for these diamonds reaching international markets.

LOUISE KELLY: And I know that Mugabe's government would argue that any action it's taken is to protect its interest and stop illegal mining. Do they have a point there?

DUNNEBACKE: That does tend to be the argument used. You have to question it. You have to wonder whether the way to deal with informal minors is by killing them. Obviously, the answer for us would be that it's not. The other ironic bit of information in this whole story is that a couple of years ago when these diamond fields were discovered, the government took them over from another foreign company that held the rights to the fields initially, and the government essentially invited citizens in to come and pan for diamonds because they knew that that was the only way they could have the capacity to get the diamonds out of the ground. So, you have the government inviting people in a few years ago, and now cracking down on minors.

LOUISE KELLY: Zimbabwe, of course, would like to be able to sell these diamonds and profit from them. There is the Kimberley Process. This is the international process for certifying diamonds as being conflict free, and that's the meeting that you were at recently where government officials, human rights group, diamond producers all participate. What happened at that recent meeting?

DUNNEBACKE: Well, the Kimberley Process was set up to try and stop the worst abuses and violence being fueled or being funded by diamonds. The meeting very much focused on the debate on whether or not Zimbabwe should be allowed to export diamonds from Marange, from this controversial area.

We had an impasse. We had a situation where consensus was not reached to allow Zimbabwe to export diamonds from Marange. So the outcome of that is that Zimbabwe is not allowed to export.

LOUISE KELLY: Now I understand Zimbabwe is threatening to go ahead and sell its diamonds whether or not it gets approval from the Kimberley Process. Can it go ahead and just do that?

DUNNEBACKE: Zimbabwe did threaten at the meeting in Tel Aviv to reinterpret the decision of the meeting and decide that the Kimberley Process had allowed it to export diamonds. They haven't yet started exporting. We don't know whether they will or not, and we very much hope that the government of Zimbabwe will respect the decision taken by the Kimberley Process and will not defy it.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, because I suppose at stake here is what happens in Zimbabwe, but also the fate of the Kimberley Process itself. If it's setting rules that can't be enforced for its members, does that weaken the process overall?

DUNNEBACKE: Absolutely. It calls into question the integrity of the Kimberley Process, its credibility in the eyes of consumers, and it sends a terrible message to all the other countries that are trying to implement the minimum requirements and the rules. It basically sends the message that if you don't follow the rules, that's okay.

LOUISE KELLY: The key issue here, or one of the key issues would be: How do you define what counts as a conflict diamond or a blood diamond, as they're sometimes known? Under the current definition, as I understand it, Zimbabwe would not be counted.

DUNNEBACKE: There is a debate around definition. The definition used by the United Nations and, by extension, the Kimberley Process, is very narrow and points to conflict diamonds being diamonds mined and sold by rebel groups, so, you know, non-state, armed actors. This very much goes against the principle of why and how the scheme was set up which is to prevent the worst types of human rights abuses and violence funded by diamonds.

LOUISE KELLY: Annie Dunnebacke, thanks so much.

DUNNEBACKE: Thank you.

LOUISE KELLY: Annie Dunnebacke is with the human rights group Global Witness. And the Kimberley Process will meet again tomorrow to decide if Zimbabwe's diamonds should be classified as blood diamonds.

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LOUISE KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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