It was part remembrance, part campaign. “Three years ago today, I joined many of you for a ceremony of remembrance at the U.S. Capitol. And I said that we had to do ‘everything we can to prevent and end atrocities,’” Obama said. ”And so I want to report back to some of you today to let you know that as president I’ve done my utmost to back up those words with deeds. Last year, in the first-ever presidential directive on this challenge, 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.’”
He said that didn’t necessarily mean military intervention, but using that “moral suasion” to steer tyrants while his administration is “going to institutionalize” the focus on genocide.
“We recognize that, even as we do all we can, we cannot control every event,” Obama said. “…Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights.”
With that, he announced another initiative, again accompanied by White House documentation. In an executive order signed today, Obama enacted the “Grave Human Rights Abuses Via Information Technology” in Syria and Iran, or GHRAVITY sanctions, “that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence,” the president said, by targeting those who have directed or facilitated the operation of tracking or network disruption technology that could assist in or enable human rights abuses.
“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 told Wiesel and the rest of the crowd at the Holocaust museum.
The sanctions come as the White House has acknowledged that the Kofi Annan “peace plan” for a Syrian ceasefire isn’t exactly working.
“We remain horrified by the reports of significant violations of the ceasefire by the Assad regime,” press secretary Jay Carney said at Friday’s briefing. “Yet again, this regime has failed to keep its word, has failed to, thus far, live up to the obligations it made to honor the Annan plan.”
Today wasn’t the first time that Wiesel, 83, has called out a president during a joint appearance at the Holocaust memorial. In 1993, he told President Clinton that “we must do something to stop the bloodshed” in Bosnia.
Today, Wiesel reminded Obama about the dangers of evil unchallenged.
“It could have been prevented,” Wiesel said. “The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Goebbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue.”
Obama — who also announced a posthumous Medal of Freedom for Jan Karski, a Polish Underground officer who carried his firsthand accounts of the Holocaust to the world including FDR — punctuated his message of how great his administration is at confronting atrocity with a footnote that it’s not just government’s responsibility.
Whereas he continuously stresses the power of government to necessarily step into matters ranging from education to healthcare, he deflected the central responsibility for “never again” as a “challenge to societies.”
“You don’t just count on officials, you don’t just count on governments,” Obama said. “You count on people — and mobilizing their consciences.”