Obama announces sanctions for tech used in human rights abuses in Iran and Syria

Washington Post on April 23, 2012 released the following:

“President Obama issued an executive order Monday that allows U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, including cellphone tracking and Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.

Social media and cellphone technology have been widely credited with helping democracy advocates organize against autocratic governments and better expose rights violations, most notably over the past year and a half in the Middle East and North Africa.

But authoritarian governments, particularly in Syria and Iran, have shown that their security services can also harness technology to help crack down on dissent — by conducting surveillance, blocking access to the Internet or tracking the movements of opposition figures.

Obama’s executive order, which he announced during a Monday speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is an acknowledgment of those dangers and of the need to adapt American national security policy to a world being remade rapidly by technology, according to senior administration officials familiar with the plans. Although the order is designed to target companies and individuals assisting the governments of Iran and Syria, they said, future executive orders could name others aiding other countries through technology in crackdowns on dissent.

Under the order, the administration announced new sanctions, including a U.S. visa ban and financial restrictions, against a range of Syrian and Iranian agencies and individuals.

In Syria, the sanctions target the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the Syriatel phone company and Ali Mamluk, the director of Syria’s general intelligence services. In Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Law Enforcement Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Datak Telecom will be subject to the new sanctions.

Speaking in solemn tones, Obama described the challenges of fulfilling the “never again” pledge in the 21st century, telling the audience, “We must tell our children about a crime unique in human history: the one and only Holocaust. … We must tell them how they died, but also how they lived.”

But, he added, “remembrance without action changes nothing.”

“In that sense, ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all,” he said.

Obama’s speech at the most visible U.S. symbol of Holocaust remembrance comes at a time when his policy toward Syria, where a government crackdown has killed thousands of civilians, is under sharp criticism from his Republican rivals for the presidency.

To demonstrate the priority he places on genocide prevention, Obama used the roughly 20-minute address to reveal that he has asked for the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate — the consensus view of all U.S. intelligence agencies — appraising the potential for mass killings in countries around the world and their implication for U.S. interests.

The president also announced a set of U.S. development “challenge” grants designed to encourage technology companies to develop new ways to help residents in countries vulnerable to mass killings better detect and quickly alert others to impending dangers. And he will unveil a high-level government panel to serve as a clearinghouse for real-time intelligence, policymaking and other issues related to mass killing.

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

Last year, Obama cited an imminent threat to Libya’s civilians to explain his decision to intervene militarily against longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi.

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and ­— more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” he said at the time.

In October, Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops to Uganda and its neighbors to help the region’s governments hunt down Joseph Kony, the fanatical head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for its campaign of civilian slaughter and child kidnapping.

But Republicans and some human rights advocates have derided Obama’s policy in Syria as weak and pressed him to do more to stop the killings there.

Last week, echoing Obama’s own remarks on Libya delivered a year earlier, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that “for the United States to sit by and watch this wanton massacre is a betrayal of everything that we stand for and believe in.”

Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and imposed a set of economic sanctions against his government. But Assad has ignored international pressure and kept up a brutal crackdown that human rights groups estimate has killed more than 11,000 people.

In some cases, Syrian security forces are using technology to track down the opposition movement’s leaders. Syrian officials may also have tracked satellite phones and computer addresses to locate a group of foreign journalists in February who were covering the siege of the city of Homs.

Two journalists were killed in an attack on a building where they were seeking shelter from government bombardment, among them Marie Colvin, an American working for the Sunday Times of London.

In his new executive order, Obama states that “the same GPS, satellite communications, mobile phone, and Internet technology employed by democracy activists across the Middle East and North Africa is being used against them by the regimes in Syria and Iran.”

The new steps are designed primarily to target companies explicitly aiding authoritarian governments with new technology that assists in civilian repression.

But senior administration officials say the measures should prompt all companies to think harder about how the technology they are providing to other countries might be employed and to take steps to ensure that it is not used in harmful ways.

“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not oppress them,” Obama said.

Obama’s visit to the memorial followed by a few days the official Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he used the first part of his speech to discuss the mass killing of Jews in Europe.

He recalled his visit to Buchenwald in June 2009, touring the former Nazi concentration camp on a still afternoon with Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Wiesel also accompanied him Monday at the museum, and in his remarks, Obama thanked him and all Holocaust survivors for “not giving up.”

“If you can believe,” he said, “then we can believe.”

Obama used the second part of his remarks to discuss the legacy of Rwanda and his efforts in Libya, Sudan and central Africa, Ivory Coast and other places where mass killings or the threat of them have drawn U.S. attention.

The new Atrocities Prevention Board is intended to elevate the issue further in his administration, officials say. It will comprise senior representatives from across the administration with the goal of helping “the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats and oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective.”

The board will hold its first session Monday afternoon and plans to meet with as many as 200 representatives of the nongovernmental organizations, university chapters of anti-genocide groups and others involved in the issue.

“This is not an afterthought, this is not a sidelight of our foreign policy,” Obama said.“We’re going to institutionalize the focus on this issue.””

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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