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Why do we need an arms trade treaty? Listen to the voices of the Congolese

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Since the start of 2012, more than 760,000 people in North and South Kivu have fled their homes seeking safety elsewhere, like in this camp on the outskirts of Goma. Photo by Colin Delfosse/Oxfam

If anyone wonders why a world so over-loaded with weapons needs a treaty to regulate their irresponsible sale, just listen to the words of villagers in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are words of the deepest suffering, almost impossible for some of us to fathom from the safe places in which we live, cocooned in the security that strong and responsible governments provide. They are blunt words like rape, mutilate, and despair—words for what happens when an uncontrolled flow of weapons washes over a region.

“They took my son of 18 years old. I paid $150 for him to be freed. He was released, but I found him already in a mutilated state,” said a man from Kalehe.

“Those who try to defend themselves or raise their voice are killed immediately,” added a man from Masisi.

“After having been raped, a woman can no longer go to her field, but then hunger will attack her family,” said a woman from Fizi.

Oxfam and local partners collected these words, and many more, during interviews with 1,328 villagers in the eastern provinces where new waves of violence have forced more than three quarters of a million people from their homes this year. On Tuesday, as machine-gun fire cracked the air, rebels overran Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. And now, experts worry about the destabilization of the entire region.

Thinking of the Congolese and their lush and lovely country shredded by such insane violence, I felt a surge of disbelief when an e-mail popped up on my computer screen Tuesday. It detailed a new resolution put forth by several dozen members of the US House of Representatives urging President Obama not to sign a global arms trade treaty—the same proposed treaty that was so close to becoming a reality during negotiations at the UN in July, and one that is so desperately needed right now in places like Congo’s eastern provinces. What was one of the chief objections stated in the resolution? The mistaken belief that the treaty would threaten domestic gun ownership here in the US.

That’s plain wrong.

The treaty would in no way affect the Second Amendment rights of US citizens to keep and bear arms. Scott Stedjan , Oxfam America’s senior policy advisor for humanitarian response, can’t say it any more clearly than this: “The Obama Administration has publicly stated numerous times that it will not support a treaty that infringes on Second Amendment rights guaranteed by our constitution. There is also language in the treaty text acknowledging that the trade of weapons for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities and lawful ownership is legitimate and will remain to be determined by a country’s national laws.”

For members of Congress to embrace the propaganda of special interest groups and use it as an excuse to turn their backs on suffering that we could, so easily, help to relieve with the adoption of this treaty is a frightening position for leaders of a free country to take.

“Our nation has the opportunity and the responsibility to stand on the right side of history,” said Stedjan. “This resolution must not block the progress we’ve made to date. For the millions of people living in fear and poverty around the world there is no time left to waste.”

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