President Barack Obama took aim Monday at Syria and Iran, imposing new sanctions on the two regimes as well as the "digital guns for hire" that develop technology enabling the two governments to monitor, track and harass their own people.
The same satellite communications, mobile phone and Internet technology used by activists across the Middle East and North Africa to speak to the outside world is being used against them in Syria and Iran, amid a "deplorable and deteriorating human rights situation" in both countries, the White House said.
Obama used the backdrop of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to announce the new measures - along with a stepped-up U.S. effort to detect and deter mass killings and genocide.
"Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale," said Obama, who was introduced at the event by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. "We are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
The executive order Obama signed establishes financial and U.S visa sanctions against those who perpetrate or assist in what the White House calls "Grave Human Rights Abuses Via Information Technology" in Syria and Iran - or GHRAVITY. It comes amid fighting in Syria despite a cease-fire and as Obama has come under criticism from some Republicans who say the U.S. needs to get tougher with Syrian leader Basher Assad.
Obama called the sanctions on the governments and private tech companies "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."
"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," he said.
Treasury officials said the order targets people involved in developing technology "that could assist in or enable human rights abuses." Treasury imposed sanctions on the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, its director Ali Maluku, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's Law Enforcement Forces, the Iranian Internet service provider Data Telecom, and the Syrian communication firm Striate.
All but Data already had been targeted for sanctions by Treasury under other violations. Under the new sanctions, any property in the U.S. in which they have an interest will be blocked, and Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.
Although Iran and Syria are targeted in the order, an administration official noted that Obama has the authority to impose sanctions on other countries if he chooses. The administration targeted Iran and Syria, the administration official said, "because of the ongoing and increasing use of technology by those governments to target people for grave human rights abuses."
Obama raised the specter of the Holocaust and past massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur to promise a focus on preventing genocide that involves nearly a dozen federal agencies.
"This is not an afterthought," he said. "This is not a sideline in our foreign policy."
The Atrocities Prevention Board, which will be chaired by Samantha Power, the White House National Security Council senior director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs, was to meet for the first time Monday at the White House and report to Obama in six months.
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