President Obama vowed to do everything he could to prevent genocide in a speech at the Holocaust Museum Monday, defending his record on human rights as he faces criticism for not taking bolder action in Syria.
Obama outlined new measures to sanction those aiding the Syrian and Iranian governments with technology, and said he was continuing the U.S. mission to capture accused war criminal Joseph Kony.
He said the Atrocities Prevention Board, which he created last year, would meet for the first time on Monday, and that the intelligence community would create a new intelligence estimate on the risk of genocide occurring.
“We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities,” Obama said. “This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy.”
The administration has provided non-lethal humanitarian and communications aid to the Syrian opposition, but has remained opposed to providing arms or taking military action.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent, has been a constant critic of the White House on Syria, and he was among the first to call for arming the rebels and using airstrikes to establish safe havens there.
McCain said in a statement Monday that he “appreciated” Obama’s announcement Monday, but said that more needed to be done in Syria. He compared the situation to former President Clinton’s decision to take action in Bosnia in the 1990s.
“It is time for President Obama to turn his principles and aspirations, which I share, into the resolve and leadership to do what is necessary to help end the slaughter in Syria,” McCain said.
Obama devoted a significant chunk of his speech to Syria, where he said the administration would continue to turn up the pressure to isolate Assad’s regime, increase sanctions and document atrocities committed by Assad’s forces.
“Despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets,” Obama said. “They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.”
In his Holocaust Museum speech, where Obama was introduced by Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the president talked about the lessons to be learned after too many stood by while atrocities were committed against the Jews in the Holocaust.
“Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture,” Obama said. “Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all, to pause and to look within.”
Obama talked about the diplomacy that helped stop the conflict in Sudan, and the effort in Libya to stop Moammar Gadhafi as he threatened to kill citizens in Benghazi. Obama was cheered as he said that the U.S. troops in Africa helping capture Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, would be continuing their effort there.
In Syria, Obama faces tough choices as he deals with a leader who has the support of his military and has shown no inclination to step down or stop the violence.
Assad agreed to a peace plan brokered by United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but violence in Syria has continued there after a cease-fire was supposed to take effect earlier this month.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at a “Friends of Syria” group meeting Friday that force could be used if Assad does not stop killing, but so far the White House has continued to say it’s seeking a diplomatic solution.
The administration is also trying to convince Russia, an ally of Assad, to stop supporting the Syrian leader.
The sanctions announced Monday in an executive order, which target those who provide technology to the Syrian and Iranian governments to target and monitor their citizens, are the latest attempt to ramp up the diplomatic pressure on Syria. Obama said the new sanctions against Syria were “one more step” the administration was taking “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.”