Inter Press Service
In a major speech commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, U.S. President Barack Obama Monday announced several steps his administration will take to curb mass atrocities abroad, including in Syria, where he is under continuing pressure to intervene with military force.
Among other measures, he announced that Washington will now impose sanctions against individuals, government agencies and private companies that use or provide advanced communications or computer technologies to track, disrupt or target opposition activists for violent repression.
In the first use of such sanctions, the U.S. Treasury said Monday it was applying the new measure against Iranian and Syrian intelligence agencies, Syria's state-controlled mobile phone company, an Iranian internet provider, and several individuals for their involvement in repression in both countries.
"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," Obama declared at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It's one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come – the end of the (Bashar al-) Assad regime that has brutalised the Syrian people."
In his speech, Obama also announced the formation of a much-anticipated Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), a high-level inter- agency body that will report directly to the White House on the potential outbreak of genocide, war crimes, or other mass atrocities and possible options to prevent or contain them.
The Board, which will meet at least monthly, will be chaired by the senior director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs, Samantha Power, a long-time close adviser to Obama who authored a book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide and reportedly played a key role last year in persuading him to intervene militarily as part of a NATO force in Libya.
In addition, Obama announced that the 17 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community will for the first time prepare a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide as part of an effort to, in his words, "institutionalise the focus on this issue".
"In short, 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.
On his visit to the museum, Obama was accompanied by the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who, in an interview with the Times of Israel last week, had rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu for repeatedly comparing the alleged threat posed by Iran to Israel with the Holocaust, as the Israeli prime minister did last Thursday at a memorial in Jerusalem in a particularly hawkish speech that drew widespread notice in elite foreign policy circles here.
But, in introducing the president Monday, Wiesel echoed some of Netanyahu's themes. Reciting the West's failure to challenge the Nazis as they perpetrated "the greatest tragedy in history", he suggested that the West was playing a similar role today with respect to Assad and Iran.
"How is that Assad is still in power? How is that the Holocaust's No. 1 denier, (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is still president?" he asked. "He who threatens to use nuclear weapons destroys the Jewish state."
"Mr. President, we are here in this place of memory. Israel cannot not remember. And because it remembers, it must be strong, just to defend its own survival and its own destiny," he said.
In his remarks, Obama noted that his administration had repeatedly rejected attempts to condemn Israel at the U.N. and other international forums.
"When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel," he said, "the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," he stressed.
But most of his remarks were directed both at his administration's efforts to prevent mass atrocities around the world – in Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, and in Central Africa with the ongoing hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) – and his promise last August to make "preventing mass atrocities and genocide …a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America."
It was in that context that he also cited the steady build-up of U.S. sanctions against Damascus – including its documentation of atrocities allegedly committed by the Assad regime and its backing for the multinational "Friends of Syria" that supports the opposition – and announced the latest measure to punish those who use or supply "technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence".
The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 Syrians have died in the violence of the past 13 months.
The use of information technology by repressive governments constituted a "new and growing human rights threat", according to a White House fact sheet distributed to reporters.
The new sanction, it stressed, is aimed not only against governments, but also "the companies that enable them with technology they use for oppression and the 'digital guns for hire' who create or operate systems used to monitor, track, and target citizens for killing, torture or other abuses."
While this sanction is directed exclusively at Syrian and Iranian companies for now, it could potentially apply to others that sell technology to repressive governments, if there is reasonable ground to believe that the technology will be used to track and target dissidents, according to independent analysts.
"The Obama administration has made a significant decision today to attack the accomplices of mass atrocities by employing targeted sanctions against high-tech industries abroad and enforce such controls here when such trade empowers regimes that kill their own people," said George Lopez, of the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
"These U.S. actions have real potential to disrupt, if not end, (commerce in) such goods and services."
At the same time, the fact sheet stressed the administration's recognition of the "importance of preserving the global telecommunications supply chains for essential products and services."
Human rights and conflict-prevention groups, meanwhile, hailed the formation of the APB, which held its first meeting Monday afternoon, as a major bureaucratic breakthrough. First introduced by a bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Pentagon chief William Cohen in 2008, the idea of the APB has won approval from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
"It will be coordinating all the information both in and outside the government and meeting on a regular basis," Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IPS. "And the aim is not simply to bring together the information, but to force a response. That's new. The U.S. government has never had a focal point on this issue in that way."
"This new 'all-of-government approach' reflects hard-learned lessons from tardy responses to past humanitarian crises," said Frank Jannuzi, a former top Congressional staffer who heads advocacy for the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International.
Albright and Cohen also praised the initiative but cautioned that it "should not be viewed as a new doctrine for humanitarian intervention or global adventurism, as some might suggest.
"Rather, it is a clear-eyed and pragmatic attempt to expand our government's toolbox to meet the challenges posed by tyrants who pose an extraordinary threat to their civilian populations. This toolbox is about more than sending in the Marines," they added.