Obama´s atrocities board keeps low profile on Syria crisis (REUTERS) By Matt Spetalnick WASHINGTON 06/01/12 7:25pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - When President Barack Obama used the Holocaust Memorial
Museum as a backdrop to unveil a new advisory panel as an early
warning system for human rights crises around the world, the
announcement seemed well-timed for the unfolding conflict in Syria.
But six weeks later and just days after a massacre of civilians in
Syria, there is little sign that Obama´s Atrocities Prevention Board
is making a mark on U.S. efforts to craft a response amid
international outrage over the mounting carnage.
Although the board is only in its early stages and is still hailed by
rights advocates as a valuable new weapon against state-sponsored
violence, its low profile on Syria underscores the limits of Obama´s
options in confronting new humanitarian crises as they arise.
More than a year after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a
brutal crackdown on the opposition, Obama has made clear he has no
appetite for launching a new large-scale military engagement in a
U.S. election year, preferring instead to rely on diplomatic and
economic pressure on Damascus.
Obama´s more passive approach on Syria stands in sharp contrast to
his decision to join a NATO air assault in Libya last year. That was
justified largely on humanitarian grounds of averting a threatened
massacre of civilians in rebel areas.
It is an awkward position for a president who has touted his human
rights focus, and some critics have suggested Syria could even turn
into Obama´s Bosnia - a reference to former President Bill Clinton´s
initially slow response to the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.
"Inaction on Syria is going to look bad" in historical terms, said
Winny Chen, head of the crimes against humanity division of Human
Rights First. But rights groups themselves have yet to forge a
consensus on whether intervention or arming the rebels would help or
just make matters worse in Syria.
PANEL HEADED BY ´HUMANITARIAN HAWK´
In Obama´s April 23 speech at the Holocaust museum in Washington, he
announced the new inter-agency advisory commission to be run out of
the White House and coordinate the government´s response to crimes
that "shock our conscience," such as mass killings, genocide and
It is chaired by Samantha Power, a senior Obama adviser and outspoken
expert on genocide, who is considered a "humanitarian hawk" within
The White House was tight-lipped when asked several times about the
board´s activities this week.
An administration official said members had discussed Syria and would
continue to do so "as long as atrocities are being committed," but
played down any notion they were heavily focused on the crisis, which
is being handled directly by Obama and his top advisers.
"Syria does not suffer from a lack of high-level attention, and the
APB is not going to displace the other high-level policy processes
that we have in place," the official said.
A humanitarian policy expert who has advised the White House agreed
that Syria should not be allowed to "suck the air out of the room" in
the board´s deliberations. But the expert insisted the board needed
to be seen playing a significant role to cement its own legitimacy.
But that should not detract from the panel´s main goal of detecting
early signs of emerging human-rights crises and driving international
action before they become full-blown conflicts like in Syria, the
At the Holocaust museum event, Obama heard famed author and Holocaust
survivor Elie Wiesel ask pointedly whether the world had learned
"If so, how is it Assad is still in power?" he asked.
Obama reminded his audience that he was the first U.S. president to
have declared preventing mass atrocities and genocide a "core
But he quickly added: "That does not mean that we intervene
militarily every time there´s an injustice in the world. We cannot
and should not."
It was a clear message that the use of military force against
Damascus was not a viable option, and Obama has stuck to that
position even as the death toll in Syria has climbed.
The White House has struggled to explain Obama´s case-by-case
approach to the "Arab spring" uprisings, fears of a sectarian
bloodbath that could spill across Syria´s borders and U.S. military
concerns of trying to impose a "no-fly" zone on a country as well-
armed as Syria.
But Republican Senator John McCain, a harsh Obama critic and 2008
presidential election opponent, remains unconvinced.
"Until we get serious about helping the Syrian people defend
themselves, find safe haven, and fight back against Assad, the
killing will continue, and we will be shamefully complicit, as we are
now, in allowing this mass atrocity in Syria to go on and on," he
said last weekend. (Editing by Peter Cooney) (© Thomson Reuters 2012.
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