Officials with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme said they would press forward with efforts to forge a deal with Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has been eager to win authorization to remove all restrictions on the sales of diamonds from its Marange field, and has threatened to flood the world market with underpriced diamonds if a deal wasn’t struck.
The 60,000-hectare (140,000-acre) field in eastern Zimbabwe was discovered in 2006 at the height of Zimbabwe’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis. It is believed to be the biggest find in the world since the 19th century, triggering a chaotic diamond rush until police and then the army moved in.
Villagers rushed to the area and began finding diamonds close to the surface. The military took over the area in late October 2008, and human rights groups say they have found evidence of forced labor, torture, beatings and harassment by troops there. Zimbabwe denies the allegations.
Last year, Zimbabwe was sanctioned for "significant noncompliance" by the Kimberley Process—the global body responsible for ending the trade of so-called blood diamonds, which have funded fighting across Africa.
In August, the group declared two shipments of stones from the Zimbabwe mines conflict-free, backing off from a ban imposed a year ago and allowing 900,000 carats of diamonds to be auctioned.
Extending the approval to all the fields dominated this week’s Kimberley Process plenary meeting in Jerusalem, where the unanimous agreement of members is required to certify the trade of diamonds. Israel is this year’s sponsor of the conference.
Sharon Gefen, spokeswoman for the Israeli Diamond Institute, which represents the local industry, said the conference ended in deadlock Thursday after four days.
She said the institute’s chairman, Boaz Hirsch, hopes to reach an agreement in the next few days after some members check back in with their home offices.
Earlier Thursday, Zimbabwe’s mines minister, Obert Mpofu, said the country has met the minimum requirements set by the Kimberley Process and its stockpile of Marange diamonds—some 4.5 million stones, valued at around $2 billion—have been deemed by monitors as conflict-free.
"The issue of selling is not guided by consensus but by compliance, and we have done that," he said.
Supa Mandiwanzira, a lobbyist for Zimbabwe, was in Jerusalem to lobby the group’s 75 members to lift the restrictions on Marange. He accused the West—particularly the United States, Canada and Australia—of playing politics and using diamonds as a way to maintain effective sanctions against the Robert Mugabe regime.
Mugabe has threatened to sell stones even without certification, and Mandiwanzira said that "we have the potential to destroy the whole industry" by flooding the market with underpriced gems.
"Diamonds mean to us what oil means to Saudi Arabia," he told the Associated Press. "Zimbabwe will be responsible for a quarter of diamond production worldwide."
Zimbabwe has made similar threats in the past, and industry officials played it down. Avi Paz, president of the Israeli Diamond Exchange, said that without certification Zimbabwe would be hard-pressed to find buyers.
In August, the U.S.-based Rapaport Diamond Trading Network, an industry diamond price and information provider, vowed to expel any member who knowingly traded gems from two Zimbabwe mines—Marange and Mutare—where laborers have been killed and children enslaved.
Human Rights Watch, which previously charged Zimbabwean troops with killing more than 200 people, raping women and forcing children to search for the gems in Marange, says the Zimbabwe government still has not kept its word to withdraw soldiers completely from the Marange fields,
Senior researcher Tiseke Kasambala said she was encouraged by Thursday’s announcement, but tougher action was needed.
"We are happy that the suspensions in exports remain. But they need to say explicitly that exports should be banned," she said.
Israel does not produce diamonds itself but is a leading polishing and trading center and was among the founders of the Kimberley Process.
The Israel Diamond Institute claims to have the world’s largest diamond trading floor. Gefen said gems worth $3.9 billion were exported in 2009—a 37 percent drop from the previous year because of the global financial crisis.