Kicking off the week after the world somberly marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Obama marked the 67th year since the liberation of Europe’s death camps with the announcement today of his new Atrocities Prevention Board.
‘”Never again” is a challenge to nations,” Obama said. “It’s a bitter truth — too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.”
Introducing Obama at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel pointedly reminded the president that “again” was unfolding right under his nose.
The Nobel laureate wondered aloud whether world leaders had “learned anything” from the failure to act to stop the World War II atrocities.
“If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?” said Wiesel. “How is it that the Holocaust’s No. 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons — to use nuclear weapons — to destroy the Jewish state. Have we not learned? We must. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late.”
“Mr. President, we are here in this place of memory,” he continued. “Israel cannot not remember. And because it remembers, it must be strong, just to defend its own survival and its own destiny.”
The morning began when Wiesel led Obama on a tour of the museum, culminating in the president placing a lit candle in front of the Buchenwald section in the Hall of Remembrance. He did so to mark his great-uncle’s role in liberating Ohrdruf, a sub camp of Buchenwald, in April 1945; that great-uncle, Charles Payne, criticized Obama’s 2009 visit to the camp as being “not because of me I’m sure, but for political reasons.”
Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) began last Wednesday at sundown, when Obama was attending campaign events out of town, and ended Thursday evening, after Obama welcomed the BCS National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide to the White House.
When he came to the event Monday, he was armed with his new bureaucratic atrocities initiative — the APB “will help the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats, and oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective,” according to the White House — and campaign-friendly “fact sheets” on the president’s actions thus far.
“The Obama administration has amassed an unprecedented record of actions taken to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable,” the White House fact sheet on comprehensive atrocity strategy stated. This was followed by a string of claimed accomplishments, including “leading international efforts to bring pressure to bear on the abusive Qadhafi and Asad regimes” and “leadership of a successful international military effort to protect civilians in Libya,” though it was arguably France and the United Kingdom who led in this regard.
Obama touched on many of the fact sheet points in his speech, taking credit for saving lives in South Sudan (which is now on the brink of all-out war with Sudan), Côte D’Ivoire, Libya and Central Africa — another White House fact sheet was dedicated to administration efforts at “mitigating and eliminating the threat to civilians posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
“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 boasted.
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.”