US detains Marange diamonds, cites “forced labour”

Fresh U.S trouble for Zimbabwe's Marange diamonds/Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced Tuesday it had detained a diamond shipment from Zimbabwe’s Marange mines, saying it had obtained information the gems had been produced using forced labour.

U.S law bars the importation of goods made using forced labour, which includes production by convicts, slaves, children or forced labourers.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”

In a statement from Washington on Tuesday, the CBP said it had issued five withhold release orders (WRO) – which allow the agency to detain imported goods – on Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds as well as garments from China, rubber gloves from Malaysia, gold from the DRC and Brazilian bone char.

Importers of the withheld goods have the option of sending them back or proving that the goods do not violate the CBP’s forced labour rule, the agency said.

“CBP’s issuing of these five withhold release orders shows that if we suspect a product is made using forced labour, we’ll take it off U.S shelves,” CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan said.

The action was based on information obtained and reviewed by the CBP, indicating that the products are produced, in whole or in part, using forced labour, the agency added.

According to the CBP website, the US does not need to prove that there has been forced labour to ban goods from entering the country. The agency can take such decisions when “information reasonably but not conclusively indicates” that merchandise was made from forced labour.

Zimbabwe’s ‘dirty diamonds’?

The Marange diamonds have struggled to shake off the dirty tag since government took control of the fields in 2008 after a military crack-down on thousands of artisanal diggers who had descended on the area two years prior.

Although government eventually managed to restore some order, securing Kimberley Process certification and mining the gems in several joint ventures with partners who include the Chinese, Zimbabwe has struggled to trade the precious stones freely, with the lucrative US market being particularly difficult to penetrate.

In 2010, the influential New York-based Rapaport Diamond Trading Network instructed its members to boycott the Marange stones, citing alleged human rights abuses.

Then a year later, on December 9 2011, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on Marange Resources and Mbada Diamonds – two companies in which the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) had interests.

All the while, Zimbabwe had to fend off repeated bids to classify the Marange gems “blood diamonds.”

In June, at the Kimberley Process (KP) reform meetings in Mumbai, India, the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition (KPCSC), a coalition of rights groups involved in the diamond industry, lobbied for a new definition of conflict diamonds that would restrict market access for Zimbabwean gems if applied.

In 2018, KPCSC said “we find it extremely difficult to classify Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds as conflict free” due to the security measures in the area. Earlier this year, the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a KPCSC member organisation based in Manicaland, appealed to the UN to classify Zimbabwean stones as “blood diamonds”.

In April, Tiffany’s the leading US jeweller, said it would not buy diamonds from Angola and Zimbabwe. Apart from ethical considerations for the company, under US measures on Zimbabwe, American companies such as Tiffany’s still cannot buy diamonds from the country.

Zimbabwe diamond auction

Zimbabwe, whose peak diamond output reached 12 million carats in 2012, is targeting 4.1 million carat production in 2019.

The latest move by the US comes as Zimbabwe prepares for its biggest auction, of up to 500,000 carats, of the year.

The country has held three auctions so far this year, the last of which was held between September 9 and 13. The country expects US$100 million diamond revenue this year, up from 2018’s US$28 million.

Three years after shutting the door on private companies operating in Marange, government has once again handed diamond concessions to Russia’s Alrosa, China’s Anjin and the London-listed Vast Resources.

In his 2019 budget statement, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube announced that Zimbabwe would join the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, a global standard for the extractive resources under which Zimbabwe would be compelled to more openly disclose data on minerals, production and earnings. However, critics say implementation of the standard has been slow.

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