Is the new BlackBerry 10 conflict free?

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The Blackberry 10. (Photo: Martin uit Utrecht / flickr)

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Much of Canada is abuzz with news of Research in Motion's launch of the new BlackBerry 10 smartphone. Canadians are understandably both proud of the Waterloo-based RIM, and anxious about its future. Many Canadians are hopeful this new phone succeeds as the company plays an important role in the Canadian economy, including in jobs and high-tech research. 

But in all the hype there is one important question that has not been asked: can RIM assure customers that its products are free of conflict minerals? If so, it would be another way to set itself apart from the competition. 

 Many church and human rights organizations are concerned that the minerals used in smartphones and other electronics may be mined -- often by children -- at gun point. As part of our human rights and peacebuilding work, KAIROS has produced educational resources to inform Canadians of the risks of conflict minerals finding their way into our electronics. 

One of these minerals, Coltan, is refined into a heat-resistant powder called tantalum that carries the high electrical charge needed in many of today's computers, video cameras and game consoles. It is also necessary for the capacitors that control the charge in smartphone circuit boards. Coltan is mined in only a few places, most prominently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

For more than a century, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by regional conflict and a deadly scramble for its vast natural resources, including coltan, gold and cassiterite, another mineral important for smartphones. Greed for Congo's natural resources has been a principal driver of atrocities and conflict throughout Congo's tortured history, including during the colonial period. 

In eastern Congo today, these mineral resources finance multiple armed groups, including many that use mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, thereby securing control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas, according to Raise Hope for Congo, a Washington-based campaign to end the conflict in the eastern Congo. The UN has labeled the Congo "the worst place to be a women" due to the shockingly high levels of gender-based violence. 

The U.S. recently passed legislation in an attempt to curb the use of conflict minerals in electronics, particularly from the Congo. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires U.S. companies to report and make public the use of conflict minerals from the Congo or adjoining countries in their products. Lawmakers in Canada are working on similar legislation for Canadian companies. 

One of KAIROS' African colleagues was killed for looking too closely into the links between the extraction of resources and armies operating in eastern Congo. To his family, he was "the hope of a generation."

KAIROS and our Congolese partners have attempted to meet with RIM to discuss these concerns. Our hope is that all smartphone companies, including RIM, take a more active role in monitoring where their minerals come from and halt the use of any mineral that contributes to conflict. Places like the Congo cannot afford to lose another generation to hopelessness and senseless violence. 

John Lewis is KAIROS International Human Rights Coordinator and Jim Davis is KAIROS Africa Partnerships Coordinator. KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives is a church-based social justice organization.

Photo: Martin uit Utrecht / flickr


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