Obama: Preventing Atrocities is Core Security Interest

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman. This is The World. President Obama today tackled the question that's always near the top of any President's foreign policy agenda and that is how to prevent atrocities around the globe.

President Barrack Obama: 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.

Werman: Obama was speaking this morning at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but his speech went beyond references to the holocaust or to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It touched on current challenges like stopping the violence in Syria and Sudan, and the President made the case for making sure that addressing such challenges is a top U.S. priority.

Obama: Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.

Werman: That, Obama stressed, doesn't mean military intervention every time. He said the U.S. also has many diplomatic and political tools to tackle the problem. The President added one more tool today, he announced the first meeting of his Atrocities Prevention Board at the White House. Harvard professor Sarah Sewall founded the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project. She's currently on a research appointment with the Naval War College. She says the new Atrocities Prevention Board is particularly significant in one respect.

Sarah Sewall: It institutionalizes ownership and responsibility at a relatively high level, at the Assistant Secretary level, almost guaranteeing that high level attention will be brought to bear when situations begin to smell troubling. That's a very important development because it prevents the U.S. government from saying, "Oh, we didn't know; oh, we didn't notice." It really forces a level of accountability that's fundamentally different.

Werman: Lower down the ladder there are citizens who watch what's going on on TV around the world. How do you connect the urgency of seeing atrocities…take Syria for example right now which looks like atrocities for many people…from seeing atrocities and getting governments to do something about it?

Sewall: I think it's really important to make two points in response to that profoundly important question which is that one, it's one thing to identify when atrocities are occurring but it's another thing entirely to respond in ways that are both effective and sustainable. Part of what the President's speech does is it highlights the very proactive ways in which the Obama administration really took the lead in responding to mass atrocities in Libya. Syria is a very different circumstance. It requires a different set of responses. So, part of what you need to be able to do is explain to Americans that the answer isn't always going to be to send in the military, that there are tools that we can use that are less invasive, less costly and hopefully more effective, particularly if they are used earlier in a crisis.

Werman: Now, one specific step the President mentioned today was an executive order he signed that he said authorizes new sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran and those that abet them for using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence. The President added that these technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them. How important do you think it is to be able to sanction the use of technology in this way, or is it something that might be hard to enforce?

Sewall: Well, it's a really interesting question and I think the answer will depend on how we implement it in practice. Technology can work in a variety of different ways but the technology…We just had a conference a couple of weeks ago where we were looking at the use of surveillance technology as a way to alert the international community to the potential for mass violence. Here the Obama administration is saying when technology is used as tools for aiding and abetting mass violence we are going to sanction it. So, technology can cut both ways. What's significant is that the administration is saying that it wants to look at sanctioning tools as well as sanctioning individuals and holding them to account.

Werman: Sarah, how does this really change anything in a truly concrete way?

Sewall: The rubber hits the road when the next crisis happens, but what the President's policy does is it makes a very clear statement that he wants to know when problems are emerging. He doesn't want to be kept in the dark which is what happened with President Clinton during the genocide in Rwanda. President Obama has said, "As President of the United States, I want to know if there are likely to be mass human rights abuses, and I want to be able to have our government ready to act in a variety of ways hopefully to prevent rather than to respond to those; and I want to use partnerships of all different kinds and a variety of tools to prevent." We'll see whether that makes a difference in the next crisis.

Werman: Sarah Sewall founded the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project and she's a professor of Public Policy at Harvard. Sarah, thank you very much.

Sewall: Thank you for having me.