President Obama announced new steps today aimed at preventing authoritarian regimes from using mobile phone and internet technologies to perpetrate atrocities against their people.
In a somber address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, his first visit as president, Obama said he had signed an executive order authorizing new sanctions on Syrian and Iranian companies and individuals that use internet tools to monitor, track and target dissidents.
“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them,” Obama said. “And it’s one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come, the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people, and allow the Syrian people to chart their own destiny.”
Obama also said he was extending the mission of a group of U.S. military advisers in Uganda who have been helping that country combat the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony.
“Our advisers will continue their efforts to bring this madman to justice and to save lives,” Obama said. “It is part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family and no girl is raped and no boy is turned into a child soldier,” he said.
The president announced that he has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to prepare the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the potential for mass killings in countries around the world and the potential impact of the events.
The Atrocities Prevention Board, a new advisory panel which Obama established in August, will convene for the first time today, Obama said, and would play an integral role in identifying and addressing what the White House calls “atrocity threats.”
The administration said it would also begin offering “challenge” grants to encourage the private sector to develop new technologies to allow citizens at risk of being victims of genocide or mass killings better share information and communicate with the rest of the world.
“We need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people,” Obama said.
The president’s visit to the Memorial was billed as an opportunity to formally mark Holocaust Remembrance Day — officially last Thursday – and to highlight the administration’s record on preventing a similar atrocity from ever happening again.
After touring the museum’s exhibits, an experience Obama described as “searing,” he outlined U.S. diplomatic and military efforts in South Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Uganda to stem human rights abuses and violence against groups of people.
“I made it clear that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America. That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not,” Obama said.
“It does mean we possess many tools, diplomatic and political and economic and financial and intelligence and law enforcement, and our moral suasion. And using these tools over the past three years, I believe, I know that we have saved countless lives.”
Obama was introduced by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Weisel, who joined the president on a 2009 visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which Obama’s great uncle helped liberate.
“One thing we do know is that it could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented, had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures,” Weisel said. “In this place we may ask, have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”
For his part, Obama said he would keep up the pressure on Assad and other authoritarian regimes until they cease violence on their people.
“Awareness without action changes nothing,” Obama said, adding that the world must not allow the “seeds of hate” to take hold again.