President Obama outlined a series of policies Monday aimed at helping the U.S. government better respond to the threat of genocide around the world, declaring that “national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people.”
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he invoked the international community’s vows of “never again” but also cited the difficulties of fulfilling that pledge in the 21st century, recalling post-World War II mass killings in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. “We are haunted by the atrocities we did not stop, by the lives we did not save,” he said.
Obama announced the formal establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board, which will draw senior officials from across the government. The panel will serve as a clearinghouse for real-time intelligence, policymaking and other issues related to the threat of mass killings.
He also announced the preparation of the first National Intelligence Estimate — the consensus view of all U.S. intelligence agencies — appraising the potential for mass killings in countries around the world.
“We must tell our children. But more than that, we must teach them,” Obama said in a solemn 25-minute address. “Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture.”
Obama spoke at a time when his policy toward Syria, where a government crackdown has killed thousands of civilians, is under sharp criticism from his Republican rivals for the presidency.
On Monday, he announced an executive order that allows U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions on foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, including cellphone tracking and Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.
The order specifically targets companies and individuals aiding the Iranian and Syrian governments, but administration officials say it could be expanded to include other countries using technology to crack down on dissent.
Under the order, the administration announced new sanctions, including a U.S. visa ban and financial restrictions, against Syrian and Iranian agencies and individuals. Those include the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the Syriatel phone company and Ali Mamluk, the director of Syria’s general intelligence services.
In Iran, the sanctions target the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the law enforcement forces and Datak Telecom.
“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them,” Obama said.
Obama reviewed actions he has taken to prevent mass killings since assuming office. Last year, he cited an imminent threat to Libya’s civilians to explain his decision to intervene militarily against longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi.
In October, Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops to Uganda and its neighbors to help the region’s governments hunt down Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for its campaign of civilian slaughter and child kidnapping. On Monday, Obama announced that he was extending the deployment past its initial 150 days.
“That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world,” he said. “We cannot and should not.”
Michael Abramowitz, director of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the steps Obama outlined “are potentially — and I stress the word ‘potentially’ — very important.”
“The government historically, and I say this across administrations, has not been up to the job of responding to mass killings and genocide,” Abramowitz said. “The test will be whether these tools are institutionalized across the bureaucracy, whether they gain bipartisan support and whether they outlast this administration.”