DUBAI // Diamond regulators have released US$160 million worth of gems from a Zimbabwean conflict area.
The UAE office of the Kimberley Process, the United Nations organisation set up to regulate the global trade in rough diamonds, was given leave to release the shipments last week. They are from the Marange region, which has been plagued by abuses, according to human-rights groups.
The 14 shipments, from a number of different traders, had been held by Dubai Customs since last November. At a meeting of the Kimberley Process in Kinshasa, on June 23, it was agreed that the shipments should be released.
"There was legal uncertainty about the status of these goods," said Peter Meeus, the chairman of the Dubai Diamond Exchange, a subsidiary of Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), which has a role in managing the UAE Kimberley Process office.
"All parties agreed that this was untenable." He said the diamonds had been purchased during an "ambiguous period" when restrictions on exporting Marange diamonds were temporarily lifted. However, the shipments arrived shortly after the end of that amnesty.
The released diamonds are believed to have been shipped to India, which has a large diamond-polishing industry. The release was perhaps the only consensus to emerge from the Kinshasa meeting.
Delegates were left confused after Mathieu Yamba, the chairmain of the Kimberley Process, had issued a statement at the end of the meeting that said diamonds from the Marange area could be now legally exported. That statement was later contested by officials in both Europe and the US. The European Union's foreign affairs commissioner, Catherine Ashton, issued a response that said Mr Yamba's text "was not agreed by consensus and is not therefore valid".
Mike Davis, a campaigner at blood-diamond watchdog Global Witness, said Mr Yamba's statement had left the group divided.
"The fact that the chairman tried to railroad through a statement that wasn't actually from the decision of the KP only deepens the mess that it's already in," he said.
The Marange diamond fields, in Chiadzwa, in the Mutare West constituency of Zimbabwe, were discovered in 2006. Two years later the government moved in to clear out speculators, with Human Rights Watch claiming 200 people had been killed.
Warning of "unacceptable and horrific violence against civilians by authorities", the Kimberley Process banned the trade in Marange diamonds in 2009.
Little has changed since then, according to Mr Davis. Letting Marange diamonds be legally exported would transform the group into a "pathetic rubber stamp".
Mr Meeus said the UAE would consider the lack of consensus in its treatment of any future shipments of diamonds from Zimbabwe.
"We believe that should be solved," he said.
The total value of trade through the Dubai Diamond Exchange almost doubled last year from US$17.9 billion (Dh65.7bn) to US$35.1 billion.
Despite the objections, it was still possible that Mr Yamba's announcement could stick, according to Stephen Chan, an expert on Zimbabwe and Zambia at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
"I don't think there will be any rescinding of this decision," he said.
"If I were the Zimbabwean government I would take this as a victory."