Alleged abuses in Zimbabwe’s eastern Marange diamond fields are among the most serious claims under consideration at the Kimberley Process conference, reviewing efforts to prevent trade in the gems from fueling armed conflicts.
Zimbabwe’s deputy mining minister Murisi Zwizwai told the 200 delegates that there had been a "special operation" to clear out thousands of illegal miners in Marange earlier this year, but denied any killings had occurred.
"Contrary to allegations in the media, nobody was killed by security forces during an operation at Marange, where about 30,000 people descended onto the alluvial mining field," Zwizwai said.
"These people comprised of cunning, die-hard illegal diamond diggers," Zwizwai said.
"This compelled government to conduct a special operation to flush out the illegal diamond miners and to bring order and sanity to the area."
Zwizwai said that some diamonds illegally mined from Marange had "found their way to markets in neighbouring countries and abroad."
"There are unsubstantiated reports of a number of deaths and cases of human rights abuse which we are keen to investigates if anybody comes forward with any leading information," he added.
Human rights groups have called for Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Kimberley Process over claims of forced evictions and other abuses in Marange.
The World Federation of Diamond Bourses in April banned the sale of diamonds from Marange, but Kimberley has resisted taking a tough stance.
Independent newspapers in Zimbabwe reported on killings by security forces in Marange earlier this year.
The allegations over Zimbabwe are the most serious facing the six-year-old scheme, which saw Venezuela voluntarily suspended last September, three years after the country had stopped making required reports on diamond production and sales.
Most diamond mining in the South American country is conducted by small-scale miners who are supposed to belong to cooperatives that submit monthly reports to authorities.
The rights group Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) sent a mission to Venezuela in May and found that diamonds are still being mined and smuggled into legitimate markets with the knowledge of authorities, despite the suspension.
Global Witness, a Britain-based group that monitors the exploitation of natural resources, has also pointed to worries over smuggling, money laundering and human rights abuses in the world’s diamond fields.
Other countries of concern were Lebanon and Guinea, which were exporting significantly more gem-quality rough diamonds than they import, Global Witness said.
The Kimberley Process emerged from global outrage over conflicts in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where hundreds of thousands died in conflicts largely funded by the plundering of wood and diamond resources.
Now the Kimberley Process covers about 99.8 percent of the world’s production of rough diamonds, with 49 members representing 75 countries working within the scheme.
Under Kimberley, rough diamonds are sealed in tamper-resistant containers and required to have forgery-resistant, conflict-free certificates with unique serial numbers each time they cross an international border.
The group’s statistics body said world diamond production fell last year as the value of the global trade dropped 16 percent, due to falling demand amid the global economic slowdown.