Browsing for diamond jewelry off Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, you can't tell by looking where the diamonds in the store windows come from. But experts can. And those same experts have affirmed that diamonds from the Marange fields of eastern Zimbabwe are mined under highly abusive conditions - the latest "blood diamonds" of the twenty-first century.
To its credit, the Israeli government has tried to put pressure on Zimbabwe to improve these conditions. In the coming year, as chair of the global group that monitors the diamond industry, Israel will have the opportunity to do even more.
Few outsiders have penetrated the closely guarded diamond fields in Marange, and many of the locals are afraid to talk. But Human Rights Watch researchers repeatedly travelled to the area in 2009 and quietly interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses of human rights abuse. We documented the killing of more than 200 people by Zimbabwe's military, as well as torture and the use of forced labor, including children, in the diamond fields.
So who benefits from Zimbabwe's diamond wealth? Mostly members of the military, officials in corporations that are cozy with the government, and the men in President Robert Mugabe's inner circle. They have unfettered access to the fields and are using diamond revenue to maintain their grip on power in the face of international sanctions. Mugabe is now part of a power-sharing government with the former opposition, but in fact he's sharing very little power at all - and none of the diamond wealth.
Global attention to these new blood diamonds is a new and critically important means of curtailing Mugabe's human rights violations and securing a true coalition government. The body in charge of monitoring the diamond trade is called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. It was founded in the wake of recent wars in West Africa, in which rebel groups used diamond mines to fund their violent quest for power, and was designed to shut down the trade in "blood diamonds" and restore the diamond industry's credibility.
The Kimberley Process includes countries that trade in diamonds, such as Israel, the United States, and Belgium, and those that produce them, such as Zimbabwe, as well as diamond-trading companies and non-governmental organizations that monitor the trade. The Kimberley Process's own investigators visited Marange last summer and confirmed Human Rights Watch's findings of serious human rights abuse, endemic smuggling, and rampant corruption.
Despite these conditions, the Kimberley Process decided in November not to suspend Zimbabwe or ban the sale of its stones. The excuse? A technicality in its mandate that defines blood diamonds as those mined by abusive rebel groups, not abusive governments.
This is a spurious argument, as Israel itself recognized when it joined a number of governments in supporting Zimbabwe's suspension. This month, Israel took over the powerful chairmanship of the Kimberley Process and will be in a position to push for the suspension of Zimbabwe more forcefully.
The Kimberley Process has urged Zimbabwe to remove its military from the diamond fields and make other crucial reforms in how it mines diamonds. Human Rights Watch's latest research, however, suggests that the situation in Marange remains largely unchanged. Despite claims that the army was withdrawing, for the most part the diamond fields remain under firm military control, with smuggling, human rights abuses, and corruption unchecked. Zimbabwe has also stalled the deployment of a Kimberley Process monitor to the area.
The Kimberley Process is in real danger of irrelevance, if not collapse. It is failing in its core mission of keeping blood diamonds out of international markets. Diamonds from Marange are being smuggled from Zimbabwe by unregistered traders and mixing with legitimately procured gems in the region. These stones are finding their way into Israel's significant diamond industry.
Many in the international diamond trade support the Kimberley Process because they believe it addresses consumer concerns about conflict diamonds that could damage the industry. Consumers are again beginning to ask: "How do I know this diamond is not financing serious human rights abusers?"
Legitimate miners, traders, and retailers have good reason to keep their products free of scandal. Israel's diamond industry should join others and take steps now to cut Zimbabwean diamonds from their supply chains.
Both the Israeli government and the diamond industry need the Kimberley Process to work. As chair, Israel can demonstrate strong moral leadership and do much to make this group more effective. In the short term, Israel should push hard for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Kimberley Process, which meets in Tel Aviv in June.
To many consumers, diamonds convey beauty, love, and commitment. But the diamonds from Marange symbolize violence, mistreatment, and the abuse of power in Zimbabwe. They should not be allowed to tarnish the integrity of Israel's diamond industry.