Thursday, August 12, 2010
Zimbabwe hits paydirt with sale of diamonds
Zimbabwe has started selling at least a fifth of a $US1.9 billion ($2.3 billion) stash of diamonds from a field where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped women and enslaved children.
It was the first public sale of gems from the notorious Marange field in eastern Zimbabwe since international regulators imposed a ban in November under rules designed to screen out ''conflict diamonds''.
The auction in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, went ahead on Wednesday after the gems were certified as conflict-free by Abbey Chikane, a monitor for the Kimberley Process, which oversees trade in the diamonds.
Buyers from Belgium, Russia, India, Israel, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates flew into Harare on private aircraft to inspect the stones and present bids in sealed envelopes.
Mr Chikane established that soldiers had now left the two fenced-off commercial mines producing the diamonds, and that the mines were operating according to ''minimum international standards''.
''This is the richest diamond field found in a century and it will do much to uplift Zimbabwe's economy,'' Obert Mpofu, the country's Mines Minister, said on Wednesday. ''It has the potential to raise as much as half of Zimbabwe's budget.''
Mr Mpofu said the country had stocks of 4.5 million Marange diamonds, valued at up to $US1.9 billion - a third of the national debt of a country whose economy has been ruined by corruption and mismanagement.
Stephane Chardon, chairman of the Kimberley Process, said the monitoring group deserved credit for the original ban on Marange diamonds and for ensuring the two fenced-off mines were being properly run.
He noted that the Kimberley rules applied only to blood diamonds mined and sold by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at toppling legitimate governments. It has no provision for punishing governments.
Mr Chardon said the system had helped. ''In quite a few countries it has contributed to changing conflict diamonds into development diamonds, in the sense that the revenues are going to the government and are used for development purposes and not for conflict.''
The Marange field was discovered in 2006 and is believed to be the biggest found in the world since the 19th century. It triggered a chaotic diamond rush until police and then the army moved in.
Human Rights Watch says Zimbabwe's government has still not kept its word to withdraw soldiers completely from the Marange fields, and that it found conditions there ''quite appalling'' as recently as May.
''We found people were still being forced to mine, to dig for diamonds at gunpoint by the army,'' said a researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, referring to the area outside the two fenced-off mines. ''We found children as young as 11 still working.''
Global Witness said that instead of expelling Zimbabwe from the Kimberley Process ''what we have instead is a weak compromise''.
Unless Zimbabwe kept its promise to withdraw all troops, the Kimberley Process should ''act very, very quickly'' to prevent the gems being exported.