President Barack Obama restated the United States' commitment to preventing human atrocities and genocide across the globe on Monday during a speech at the national Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where he introduced a new executive order authorizing U.S. officials to impose sanctions on countries that use technology to infringe on human rights.
Preventing genocide is an achievable goal, but it's one that doesn't start form the top, Obama said. It starts from the bottom up.
The president signed the executive order on Sunday, aimed specifically at imposing sanctions on nations that provide technology to help the Syrian and Iranian governments carry out human rights abuses. Both countries have used technology to stop citizen uprisings through moves such as cell phone tracking, blocking access to the Internet, or using the web themselves to maintain surveillance on protesters.
These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to oppress them, Obama said on Monday.
Mobile technologies have taken on a new significance for social change in the 21st century. Cell phones and social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook helped foster the Arab Spring, with citizens using those tools to launch protests and organize civil uprisings against oppressive regimes.
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The new executive order uses sanctions and a visa ban to target people who have sold to the Iranian and Syrian governments, or helped put in place, technology that facilitates computer or network disruption, monitoring or tracking to enable human rights abuses. The order is part of a broader strategy intended to strengthen the administration's ability to prevent atrocities, including the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board that Obama said will meet for the first time on Monday.
This novel sanctions tool allows us to sanction not just those oppressive governments, but 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 grave abuses, according to a White House statement.
The new Atrociites Prevention Board will include members from several government agencies, including the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice and Homeland Security.
Obama was introduced at Monday's remembrance ceremony by author Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel emphasized the need for individuals and nations to speak up and act when confronted with atrocities taking place against any human being, even those half a world away.
One thing we know is that it could have been prevented, Wiesel said, referring to the Holocaust. The great tragedy in history could have been prevented, had the civilized world spoken up and taken measures in 1939, 1940, 1941 or '42 even.
Wiesel urged Obama and world leaders to prevent atrocities such as the widespread attacks on political dissenters occurring in Syria. In particular, Wiesel said the international community needs to confront threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to use nuclear weapons against Israel.
Obama, who emphasized on Monday the nation's commitment to always be there for Israel, has been criticized by Republicans and some pro-Israel groups for not taking stronger steps to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
While discussing the situation in Syria, Obama once again said President Bashar al-Assad must be ousted from power for using his army in violent crackdown against opposition forces. He also said the U.S. is not giving up on the Syrian people and will continue to provide humanitarian aid as it increases sanctions and documents human rights abuses.
We need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these national atrocities, Obama said. Because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people.