Call for Zimbabwe diamond sanctions to be lifted

An international meeting to discuss rules curbing the sale of conflict diamonds began Tuesday with a call for the United States to lift sanctions on Zimbabwean mines.

Representatives of 81 countries taking part in the Kimberley Process heard a plea from the South African chairman that Washington follow the European Union's lead and allow Zimbabwe's return to fully fledged international trade.

South Africa's Welile Nhlapo, who currently chairs the rotating presidency of the diamond watchdog, congratulated the European Union for "its decision to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe" after the disputed July 31 elections won by President Robert Mugabe.

"We hope that those who continue to maintain such sanctions will also be able to lift them because the lifting of these sanctions would assist Zimbabwe to bring stability and prosperity once again," he said at the start of the regulator's four-day talks in Johannesburg.

The EU in September lifted restrictions against the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, the firm that controls Marange, one of the world's largest diamond fields.

Zimbabwe's Mines Minister Walter Chidakwa threw his weight behind the recommendations of the UN-backed Kimberly Process.

"Since the EU has removed sanctions on our diamonds, we are calling on the United States to remove sanctions so that we can be able to do as much business as possible," Chidakwa told AFP.

The move by the EU allows the country to go back to trading at Antwerp, one of the world's largest diamond centres, in Belgium.

"I hope that in December we will be able to make a full comeback into Antwerp," Chidakwa said on the sidelines of the annual assembly.

The Zimbabwe firm had been blacklisted in 2004 for allegedly channelling funds to Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

Diamond-producing countries, industry buyers and rights activists are meeting in South Africa to take stock of the work of the regulator amid calls for reforms in the body created 10 years ago to prevent so-called "blood diamonds" from filtering into the market.

"There are still ... several challenges we need to deal with," said Shamiso Mtisi, representing civil society in the Kimberley Process.

The conflict in the Central African Republic, a leading diamond producer, was among the issues to be discussed. The country was suspended earlier this year after rebels staged a coup, and a civil conflict is still raging there.

Mtisi also raised concern about rights violations in Angola, another diamond-producing nation that is vying for the vice presidency of the Kimberley Process (KP) next year.

He alleged that Angolan authorities are persecuting an author and civil society researcher, Rafael Marques.

"It reflects poorly on the KP, as well as Angola," Mtisi said.

Two other countries whose status will be up for review this week are Ivory Coast and Venezuela. Ivory Coast is under a UN diamond embargo imposed in 2005, while Venezuela voluntarily pulled out of the KP in 2008 amid accusations of failure to respect the watchdog's rules.

Calls for reforms are centred around the re-definition of the term "blood diamond", which Alan Martin, a researcher with Partnership Africa Canada, said has become "very outdated".

The KP was created to prevent the proceeds of diamond sales from financing civil conflicts around the world and covers about 99.8 percent of the world's production of rough gems.

World Diamond Council president Avi Paz backed the calls for reforms.

The council "supports the process of reform... including the expansion of its mission to include systematic acts of violence against communities that are directly associated with diamonds, although not necessarily within the context of civil war."

But Nhlapo feared that expanding the responsibility of the KP would threaten "its very credibility and existence."

"The KP was not created to end conflict, or to end human rights abuses or to take retributive action against sovereign states," he said.