Israel leading campaign against blood diamonds?

Human Rights Watch urges gov't to move rapidly to end "suffering of innocent."

By RON FRIEDMAN
February 28, 2010 22:58
Israel leading campaign against blood diamonds?

diamond 88 224. (photo credit: )

 
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Human Rights Watch associate director Caroll Bogert was in Israel last week, urging the government to move rapidly to end “the suffering of the innocent.”

For once, she wasn’t talking about Gaza; she was talking about Zimbabwe and the key role Israel can play in alleviating human rights abuses being committed by the army in the Marange diamond mines in the country’s east.

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In January, Israel took over the revolving chairmanship of the Kimberley Process, a UN-sanctioned certification program aimed at preventing trade in blood diamonds.

The KP is made up of three types of groups: member states, representatives of the diamond industry and human rights organizations. These groups try to work together to ensure that consumers know that the diamonds they purchase are not funding violence or causing grave human rights violations.

Traditionally, blood diamonds – also known as conflict diamonds – were diamonds that were mined by rebel movements to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments.

But in November, at the KP’s annual summit in Namibia, the 75 member states of the process for the first time took action against a sovereign state. After a KP review mission visited Zimbabwe last summer and determined that the mining operation involved significant noncompliance with the minimum requirements of the KP, the plenary decided that diamonds from the Marange mines will not be traded under the program until a KP monitor is in place to ensure improved conditions.

For the time being the diamonds mined at Marange are said to be stored in a safe, awaiting the arrival of the recently assigned monitor, Abbey Chikane, the head of the South African Diamond Board and a former chairman of the Kimberley Process.



“I cannot state this more strongly. To trade in diamonds from Marange today is, in effect, the same as supporting acts of violence against civilian populations. Such a situation cannot be tolerated by people of good will and ethical purpose,” Eli Izhakoff, chairman of the World Diamond Council and a partner in a New York diamond manufacturing and import/export firm, said in a speech on Thursday at the 2010 World Jewelry Confederation Congress in Munich.

A 62-page report published by Human Rights
Watch in 2009 documented how, since the discovery of diamonds in Marange in June 2006, the Zimbabwean police and army have used brutal force to control access to the diamond fields and to take over unlicensed diamond mining and trading.

In February 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted more than 100 one-on-one interviews with witnesses, miners, police officers, soldiers, community leaders, victims and their relatives, medical staff, human rights lawyers and activists in Harare, Mutare and the Marange district.

Those interviewed said that police officers, who were deployed in the fields from November 2006 to October 2008 to end illicit diamond smuggling, were in fact responsible for serious abuses – killings, torture, beatings and harassment.

The report also examined the Zimbabwean army’s violent takeover of the Marange diamond fields in late October 2008, which was an attempt by the military to impose order on the fields.

According to HRW, under military control, hundreds of children and adults endure forced labor for mining syndicates, while soldiers continue to torture and beat villagers, accusing them of either being or supporting illegal miners who are not working for the army.

“The police and military have been given access to Marange’s mineral wealth at a time when the government has struggled to pay their wages,” reads the HRW report. “Human Rights Watch’s research suggests that revenue from the gems has also enriched senior ZANU-PF [President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front] officials and provided an important revenue stream for the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which has underwritten some military operations.”

Bogert said that the best thing from a human rights perspective would be that Zimbabwe be removed from the KP, but acknowledged that the difficulties in doing so were great.

In a phone interview from Brussels, Boaz Hirsch, international operations division chief in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the man who represents Israel as chairman of the KP, said that dealing with Zimbabwe was at the top of the agenda for members of the process, especially for the western nations involved.

Hirsch said the topic of Zimbabwe will be one of the main focus points at the KP plenary meeting scheduled to take place in Israel next November as well as in an intercessional conference scheduled for June, but that in the meantime he was working on building a coalition.

“We need to work throughout the year and not only at two points. The meetings are the tips of the icebergs that everyone sees, but under the surface we are in constant negotiations,” he said.

“We are in the midst of intensive negotiations
with the Zimbabwean government to try to bring about compliance through the understandings we reached in November. Many people may not realize it, but there are currently no Marange diamonds being exported from Zimbabwe. And there will be none until our monitor is in place to personally sign every shipment that exits the country,” said Hirsch.

“The sensitivity of national sovereignty cannot be underestimated. Based on the principles of the process, I cannot infringe on it without the consent of 100 percent of the members. And if we fail it may lead to a snowball affect that will seriously harm the reputation and the affectivity of the process.

“Among the members of the KP there are many states that don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with the human rights organizations’ perspective and it requires a balance to take actions and still keep everybody on the same page. I meet with the human rights community regularly, and they have their agenda, but I think that as chairman of the process, I have to look at the overall stability of the process and its continued existence,” said Hirsch.

Udi Shintal, director-general of the Israel Diamond Manufacturers Association, said it was important to keep Zimbabwe in the process.

“The problem won’t be solved if Zimbabwe exits the process, they will just move to operating on the black market. Such a move would harm other diamond miners in the country [Zimbabwe] that are in compliance with the process. It is important to find a balance,” he said.

It was up to consumers to ask whether the diamonds they purchase are from conflict areas or from Marange, Shintal said. “While experts may be able to know the source of the diamond by certain characteristics, for the average consumer it is impossible to know without asking.”

Avi Paz, president of the Israeli Diamond Bourse in Ramat Gan and the recently elected head of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, is a member of the KP.

In a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post from Dana Children’s Hospital at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, where he was delivering Purim parcels for sick children, Paz said that both he and the organizations he leads support the KP completely. “It is one of the best things for the diamond industry. It ensures transparency and fair trade. I wish there were such mechanisms in other industries,” he said.

“The best thing would be for Zimbabwe to accept responsibility and move toward compliance by itself,” said Paz. “We sent people to examine the situation on the ground and they came back with worrying results. If we are forced to make hard decisions we will do it.”

Paz said that having Israel chair the KP process was an achievement of great importance, especially in light of the fact that several KP member countries have no diplomatic relations with Israel. “I will be pleased if under the leadership of Hirsch, we can solve this issue,” he said.

Bogert of HRW said the human rights community was “thrilled” to have Israel chair the process and see the matter in the hands of an open and democratic country

“We want Israel to take the lead. We want Israel to accomplish what needs to be accomplished in this window of opportunity,” she said. “I think it’s potentially a good thing for the Kimberley Process, a good thing for the people of Zimbabwe and a good thing for the State of Israel to have the Israeli government take and succeed, in a leadership role, on an international human rights issue.”

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