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Obama order targets atrocities — but gives little new power to stop them

A Rohingya woman feeds her one month old baby at the school in the Baw Du Pha internal displacement camp on May 17, 2016 in Sittwe, Burma. A fire in early May left 56 homes destroyed in the camp and 2,224 people without a home. Despite the U.S. announcing it would further ease sanctions in Myanmar to boost trade as a support for its ongoing political reform, the Rohingya ethnic group continues to remain under heavy persecution with over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims left displaced in camps since the ethnic violence in 2012.(Photo: Lauren DeCicca, Getty Images)

By Gregory Korte
May 19, 2016 

WASHINGTON — President Obama signed an executive order to detect and prevent mass atrocities Wednesday, proclaiming that the prevention of atrocities is a "core national security interest of the United States."

But the executive order doesn't lay out any policy changes or give the give the government any explicit new power. Instead, it mostly makes permanent an Atrocities Prevention Board that's already existed for four years.

"We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities," Obama said in 2012, heralding the first meeting of the board at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The board is designed to be a sort of early-warning system, alerting senior U.S. policymakers about a pending atrocity while there's still time to do something about it.

Obama established the board through a rare form of executive action called a Presidential Study Directive. Wednesday's action converted that directive into a formal executive order, giving it the force of law and ensuring it continues into the next administration unless officially revoked by the future president.

But human rights activists were disappointed by the executive order. Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman who now heads United to End Genocide, said the Atrocities Prevention Board should have been made permanent years ago — and given significant authority to direct sanctions.

"They talked about it happening in six months, and it’s been years," he said. "It doesn’t appear — at least from that — that preventing atrocities has been a significant priority of the administration. It’s good that it happened, but it’s very late."

Take Myanmar. On Tuesday, Obama extended the state of emergency that allows sanctions against the Asian nation, also known as Burma, for its human rights violations. But at the same time, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes announced that the United States was loosening its sanctions through a policy of "constructive economic engagement."

"We’re not doing away with all of our sanctions," Rhodes said in a speech to the Center for New American Security. "We are taking key steps to make it easier for U.S. and international businesses, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to be fully engaged in supporting Burma’s democratic transition."

The Treasury Department blocked the assets of six Burmese companies Tuesday, mostly for trading with the North Korean military, but released those of 10 more — despite recent reports documenting more than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslim minorities confined to squalid internment camps.

"There's not a single human being alive that's been cited for a human rights violation under the authority the president has," Andrews said. "On the one hand, the process is important. But you've got to act. You have to make human rights violations a clear priority, and in cases like Burma we just haven't seen it."

State Department officials briefed reporters on the executive order Wednesday but would not discuss its contents on the record.

The order also defines the term "mass atrocity" for the first time under U.S. law, referring to them as "large scale and deliberate attacks on civilians."

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