Bostonglobe- WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to expand his administration’s response to oppression in the Middle East, announced new sanctions Monday against those who provide Syria and Iran with cutting-edge technology to track down dissidents for abuse, torture, or death.
The measures underscored the role that computers, social media, and cellphones have played not just in organizing resistance to authoritarian governments but also in helping security services crack down on those dissidents. The sanctions are meant to put technology providers on notice that they will be held responsible for enabling human rights abuses.
“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them,’’ Obama said in a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It’s one more step toward the day that we know will come, the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people.’’
The president toured the museum alongside Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and professor of humanities at Boston University.
Obama presented himself as a champion of Israel in the face of Republican complaints that he has not been supportive enough of the Jewish state. He noted that his administration had voted against UN resolutions condemning Israel and had worked to counter any threat from Iran.
“The United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,’’ he said.
The announcement of new sanctions came as Obama continues to search for a more effective response to the killings in Syria, where more than 9,000 people have died over the past year as the government of President Bashar Assad has tried to suppress a popular uprising.
Critics have described Obama’s response as too passive and have called for more robust action to halt the violence. Obama argued Monday that the focus on technology reflected an ever-widening set of actions that would eventually stop Assad.
The executive orders authorize restrictions on financial assets and bar those who provide technology to Iran and Syria from entering the United States. The restrictions primarily target those based inside the two countries, including Syria’s intelligence service and its director, Iran’s intelligence ministry and law enforcement organizations, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. An Iranian Internet provider and a Syrian communications firm were also hit with sanctions.
US officials say the Syrian and Iranian governments have increased their capabilities to track and disrupt communications networks that allow their citizens to engage with each other and the outside world.
The president issued a warning to nations that launch violent crackdowns on civilians. “National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people,’’ he said. Obama is also trying to develop a broader strategy to respond to genocides and other mass killings, after his two predecessors failed to prevent widespread slaughter in Rwanda and Darfur.
Among other things, the president announced that the nation’s intelligence agencies would conduct a full-scale study of the risks of future mass killings, and he promised more aggressive diplomatic, financial, and humanitarian actions.
Human rights activists welcomed the new measures but said they would be meaningful only if the government uses them assertively.
“We know from history that the US government and other influential countries have not typically done a good job in preventing genocide and other forms of mass atrocities,’’ said Michael Abramowitz, director of the Holocaust museum’s Committee on Conscience.
“In theory, the new tools announced today should focus more bureaucratic attention on this problem and empower US policymakers to do a better job in saving lives,’’ Abramowitz said. “But the real test is whether these policymakers have the political will to use the tools effectively.’’
Obama signed a presidential directive in August declaring that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.’’