With the national Holocaust Memorial Museum serving as a powerful backdrop, President Obama today announced new measures intended to crack down on human-rights atrocities in Syria and Iran, saying the United States has to do everything in its power to prevent those nations’ regimes from killing more of its people.
Speaking to an audience that included Holocaust survivors, Obama said that further sanctions against today’s authoritarian rulers is in part a recognition that the threat of genocide is a stark reality, even decades after the systematic killing of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust later sparked an unofficial slogan: “Never again.”
“Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing,” Obama said shortly after touring the museum with survivor and author Elie Wiesel. “In this sense, ‘Never again’ is a challenge to us all -- to pause and to look within.”
The president said he would be authorizing U.S. officials to issue sanctions against leaders found to be using new technologies like cell phones and the Internet to commit abuses against their citizens. He said that one outcome of steps like this would be the fall of the Assad regime, although he did not put a timeline on when that would happen.
“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them. And 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 added that such sanctions did not mean he believes the United States should always intervene “every time there’s an injustice in the world.”
“We cannot and should not,” he continued.
But, he added, the United States takes seriously the threats of genocide around the world.
“This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy,” he said, adding that his Atrocities Prevention Board, the formation of which he announced in August 2011, would meet at the White House for the first time today.
He also told of a private moment between himself and Wiesel during their museum tour as they “looked at the unhappy record of the State Department and so many officials in the United States during those years” -- an allusion to the United States’ failure to accept refugees from the Holocaust until 1944, years after the genocide had begun.
“He asked, ‘what would you do?’” Obama recounted of Wiesel.
The author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who introduced the president, warned against staying on the sidelines amid the current atrocities around the world, noting that the United States could have done much more to reduce the scope of the Holocaust.
“Why did America not open its doors to more of the doomed; it could have,” Wiesel said. “Why did not the allies bomb the railways going into Auschwitz?”
And he seemed to question the current policy in Syria and Iran, bemoaning the fact that the leaders of those two countries were still in power.
“Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the Holocaust's No. 1 denier is still a president?”