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Obama Says National Sovereignty Is No Excuse for Atrocities
April 24, 2012

By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer
April 23, 2012

People look at a photo display
President Obama said what ultimately led to deaths camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz actually began inside the “hearts of ordinary men and women.”

Commemorating the Holocaust that occurred in Europe during in the 1930s and 1940s, President Obama said national sovereignty “is never a license to slaughter your people,” and that evils such as the destruction of European Jews happened “because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts and because so many others stood silent.”

Speaking April 23 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Obama said the Holocaust was “a crime unique in human history” in which 6 million innocent people were “sent to their deaths just for being different, just for being Jewish.” Millions of Poles, Catholics, Roma, homosexuals and others were also murdered by the Nazis and their allies.

“We must tell our children. But more than that, we must teach them, because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing,” Obama said. What ultimately led to death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz actually began inside the “hearts of ordinary men and women.”

“We have seen it again: madness that can sweep through peoples, sweep through nations, embed itself. The killings in Cambodia, the killings in Rwanda, the killings in Bosnia, the killings in Darfur — they shock our conscience. But they are the awful extreme of a spectrum of ignorance and intolerance that we see every day, the bigotry that says another person is less than my equal, less than human,” he said.

Obama said the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America,” and although the United States cannot and should not intervene militarily every time there is an injustice, it does have “many tools, diplomatic and political and economic and financial and intelligence and law enforcement, and our moral suasion” to try to save lives.

The president announced that the newly created White House Atrocities Prevention Board would meet for the first time later in the day to focus U.S. government attention on how to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities around the world.

The board comprises national security, intelligence, legal, development and other government representatives. Obama said it “will ensure that information about unfolding crises and dissenting opinions quickly reach decision-makers, including me.”

To prevent mass atrocities, “you don’t just count on governments. You count on people and mobilizing their consciences,” he said. Nations need to realize the “bitter truth” that “too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale, and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.”


The president announced that Polish resistance fighter and Holocaust witness Jan Karski would be posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

Karski, who died in 2000, was an officer in the Polish underground during World War II and reported some of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust after seeing atrocities being carried out in Nazi-occupied Poland. He informed world leaders of what was happening, including President Franklin Roosevelt. He later settled in the United States and became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Karski was a hero who “witnessed Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth,” Obama said.