Groups of miners in the diamond fields in Marange in 2006. When the scramble peaked in October 2008, more than 35,000 people, including children and women, were either mining or buying diamonds in Marange.

© 2006 Associated Press

You would think that, with its vibrant diamond trade, South Africa would be first in line to prevent the smuggling of diamonds from Zimbabwe. Instead, South Africa has played a more equivocal role with its neighbour. The result is that South Africa is at risk of endangering its own diamond industry.

Early last month South Africa had an opportunity to help suspend Zimbabwe from participation in the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), a global body that regulates the diamond trade. South Africa, an important founding member of the group, even participated in a review mission in late June and early July.

That mission concluded that diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe are mined under conditions of serious human rights abuses and in breach of KPCS standards requiring members to ensure that diamonds are lawfully mined, documented and exported.

When the KPCS held its plenary meeting in November, Canada, Israel, Liberia and civil society groups from around the world strongly supported the review mission's recommendations to suspend Zimbabwe or ban the sale of its stones. Disappointingly, South Africa, with Namibia and Russia, opposed the recommendations. And, because the Kimberley Process works by consensus, the proposal was defeated.

This decision, which will allow the entry of diamonds from Zimbabwe's Marange fields into South Africa, not only threatens the diamond industry here, but also seriously mars the credibility of a process that began in Kimberley to prevent the trade in diamonds connected to situations of grave human rights abuse.

South Africa needs to act at once to protect its own diamonds, restore the Kimberley Process's relevance and credibility and help Zimbabwe to clean up its diamond industry.

The South African government can start by taking stronger measures to stop the flow of Marange diamonds into its territory. South Africa's certification system has proved ineffective and Zimbabwean diamonds are often smuggled into the country by unregistered traders.

As a result, Zimbabwe's diamonds end up intermingling with South Africa's legitimate gems. South Africa needs a credible way to assure international polishers, retailers and consumers that it does not trade or transport Marange diamonds.

Working with other states in the region, South Africa should press the government of Zimbabwe to end human rights abuses and smuggling in its diamonds fields, reform its diamond industry and ensure that people responsible for abuses are prosecuted. South Africa could provide advice to Zimbabwe on mining its diamonds legally.

Finally, the South African government could take the lead in the much-needed reform of the Kimberley Process to equip it to do its job properly. To be relevant and effective, the Kimberley Process needs to adapt to address all types of blood diamonds -- those mined by governments under conditions of serious human rights abuse, as well as those mined by rebel groups.

Human Rights Watch released a report in June which found that Zimbabwe's army has killed more than 200 people, engaged in torture and used forced labour, including children, in the diamond fields. Our latest information is that the situation in Marange remains largely unchanged. Despite claims that the army was withdrawing, most of the diamond fields remain under military control, with smuggling, human rights abuses and corruption unchecked.

People near the diamond fields live in abject poverty and constant fear. With South Africa's complicity, the Kimberley Process is in danger of betraying its founding mission. When the group decided not to suspend Zimbabwe or ban the sale of its stones, its weak excuse was a technicality in its mandate that defines blood diamonds as those mined by abusive rebel groups, rather than abusive governments.

It shouldn't matter who does the abusing. There are still children whose labour has been coerced and men and women who have been beaten and tortured in the process of diamond extraction. If the Kimberley Process does not protect these individuals, what does it stand for?

South Africa can play an important role in guaranteeing that its diamonds are clean and that the Kimberley Process still has some integrity. But this means holding Zimbabwe to account.