By Joseph Nasr
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Civil society groups urged diamond trade regulators Monday to suspend ties with Zimbabwe because of human rights abuses in its Marange diamond fields.
A meeting in Israel of delegates from some 70 countries in the Kimberley Process (KP), a certification scheme set up to monitor diamond trades, will focus on trade in Zimbabwean gems after pressure on the regulatory body to address rights abuses.
"Zimbabwe has been failing to meet the minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process for a number of years now and we call on the Kimberley Process to suspend Zimbabwe's membership," said Annie Dunnebacke of British-based industry group Global Witness.
Civil society groups, which are part of the Kimberley Process, are facing public calls to leave the regulatory body given its failure to suspend trade in diamonds from Zimbabwe.
"The situation of NGOs in the Kimberley Process is becoming more and more difficult to explain," Dunnebacke said. "So if it becomes ever more difficult for us to explain our position at the table, then we may not be able to be here anymore."
The Kimberley Process angered human rights groups and diamond traders earlier this month when a monitor it appointed to assess the Zimbabwean government's mining operations at Marange said Zimbabwe had met the minimum conditions set by the industry regulator and could start gem exports.
A Kimberley Process official said the regulator's review of Zimbabwe covered issues such as certification of the diamonds and overall transparency.
Rights groups allege serious abuses by security forces deployed by the Zimbabwean government to stop illegal diamond digging after up to 30,000 panners descended on the poorly secured fields in 2006.
In a report, which will be presented at the three-day meeting in Tel Aviv, KP monitor Abbey Chikane voices concern over the presence of the army in Marange, but warns against their rapid removal, saying this could trigger illegal digging.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday that Zimbabwean security forces this month raided the offices of a leading civil society organization and arrested its leader, Farai Maguwu, two days after he met with Chikane to discuss the continued presence of Zimbabwean soldiers in Marange.
Maguwu handed himself to the Zimbabwean police 19 days ago after members of his family were beaten and detained, HRW said. He remains in detention and has not yet been charged, the group said. His family is in hiding.
"The Kimberley Process risks total irrelevance if it ignores these ongoing abuses," said Rona Peligal of HRW. "If the Kimberley Process can't take real action on an issue like Zimbabwe, then what is it good for?"
Boaz Hirsch, the Kimberley Process's 2010 chairman, told Reuters that delegates would hold intensive discussions to reach a solution on Zimbabwe. He declined to say if there was enough support to suspend diamond trade with the African country.
"There will be no compromise on the compliance with the KP standards," Hirsch said. "We wait to see Zimbabwe complying, we want to see Zimbabwe within the Kimberley Process."
The Zimbabwean government agreed to a process of assessment by the Kimberley Process following reports of atrocities in Marange four years ago. Rights groups say soldiers in Marange are still engaging in forced labor, torture and harassment.
The KP's June 21-23 meeting in Tel Aviv will be followed by a higher level meeting in November in Jerusalem.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)