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U.S. Bans Rights Abusers, Strengthens Effort Against Atrocities

Darfur refugees in 2007. The Obama administration says it is strengthening its response to potential genocide and mass atrocities.

To help "ensure that the United States does not become a safe haven for serious violators of human rights," U.S. President Barack Obama today issued a proclamation barring the entry of individuals said to be involved in systematic violence, war crimes, and other severe rights violations.

The ban, which takes effect immediately, applies to people designated by the State Department as having organized, participated in, or aided the crimes or violations.

It leaves room for individuals to enter the country who may have been involved in rights violations, but whose presence "would not harm the foreign relations interests of the United States."

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the idea is to strengthen existing protocol.

"I think this is trying to apply a systematic approach to these kinds of individuals and trying to create a mechanism that prevents these individuals [from entering the country]," he said. "There's already a database where individuals we believe are guilty of human rights abuses and would be denied a visa."

On July 26, the White House informed Congress that it had invoked that protocol to impose visa bans on a number of Russian officials connected to the prison death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

The Obama administration had already issued visa bans on Iranian officials over human rights violations stemming from the 2009 post-election crackdown.

The White House also imposed travel sanctions against the Belarusian government in response to its violent response to pro-democracy demonstrators in the wake of last December's presidential election.

The White House today also announced a plan aimed at helping to prevent and respond to mass atrocities and genocide throughout the world.

It said doing so is a "core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."

The new "Atrocities Prevention Board" will be charged with developing a range of U.S. responses to mass human rights violations. The panel will also study how to better coordinate those efforts among various government agencies.

"Governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed," the White House statement said.

The White House also conceded that a comprehensive U.S. policy on the matter is long overdue.

"Sixty-six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a corresponding policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide," the statement said.

The Obama administration has faced criticism in recent weeks for what some say has been a muted response to mass human rights violations in Syria. Rights groups say the violations may amount to war crimes.

Some rights activists have unfavorably compared the administration's expansion of sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to its actions in Libya, where it is helping lead a NATO intervention mission aimed at preventing the killing of civilians.

The administration says the two are separate cases and cannot be compared.

Several rights groups welcomed the White House's move to create the new panel.

Rebecca Hamilton, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book on U.S. foreign policy toward Darfur, called the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board an "historic first step."

"It is the first time that the U.S. government has recognized that until now it has had an incoherent approach to atrocity-prevention and it's taking the first step to begin to remedy that problem," Hamilton said.

But she said stronger policy in Washington won't be enough to head off potential atrocities: "I think if we take a step back and look at the really big picture, what's also clear is that in the 21st Century, it's very rare that the U.S. government, acting alone, will have the leverage to stop a dictator who is hell-bent on a policy of violence towards his own people. So the question is, what is the U.S. government also doing to set up multilateral structures for early action?"

The White House said the new board's work should also ensure that, "we are optimally positioned to work with our allies in order to ensure that the burdens of atrocity prevention and response are appropriately shared."

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