Thousands of villagers around east Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields took to the streets on Monday to protest the looting of diamond revenue and were met by armed soldiers and police who fired tear gas canisters to disperse the demonstrators, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
The police argued that the protest had not been authorized under the repressive Public Order Security Act (POSA) which severely limits freedom of association, public debate, and criticism of the government.
Human Rights Watch has documented how Zimbabwe's armed forces have coerced children and adults into carrying out forced labor, and tortured and harassed local villagers when they seized control of the diamond fields. Armed forces personnel also killed more than 200 people in Chiadzwa, a previously peaceful but impoverished part of Marange, in late October 2008.
In March 2016, former president Robert Mugabe, while providing no evidence, told the state broadcaster that diamonds worth more than US$15 billion had been looted in Marange. No one has been held to account for the alleged looting. After years of alleged diamond revenue looting by state-owned companies, with no benefits to the local communities, the villagers' protest is an indication that patience is wearing thin.
According to the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, which works closely with Marange community activists, representatives of the Marange communities petitioned the Parliament of Zimbabwe in March to "ensure diamond mining contributes to development of the health, educational and road infrastructure of the Marange community, especially areas affected by diamond mining."
The Zimbabwe authorities have failed to ensure greater revenue transparency from diamond mining. Mechanisms for regulating diamond mining are needed to ensure the rights of local communities to information, and to protect them from forced evictions and from negative health and environmental impacts of mining.
The government's heavy-handed response to the situation in Marange is counterproductive and likely to fuel violence. Authorities should investigate the violence, hold those responsible for any abuses to account, and open channels for genuine and constructive dialogue to address the communities' concerns. The global rough diamond industry regulatory body, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, should also ensure it is adequately equipped to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses and the looting of Marange diamonds.