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Will Obama move thwart murderous regimes?

By George A. Lopez, Special to CNN
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Wed April 25, 2012
President Obama on Monday announced sanctions on tech companies whose products help repressive regimes.
President Obama on Monday announced sanctions on tech companies whose products help repressive regimes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • George Lopez: Obama order will sanction tech companies that enable murderous regimes
  • He says withholding some technology can deny repressive regimes a tool against activists
  • He says tech companies can get help in complying with sanctions
  • Lopez: "Blood diamonds" strategy is an example of how companies can do right thing

Editor's note: George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He served on the U.N. panel of experts for Security Council sanctions on North Korea from October 2010 through July 2011.

(CNN) -- The Obama administration made a significant decision Monday to use targeted economic sanctions against high-tech companies abroad whose technologies empower regimes to kill their own people. The president's executive order places restrictions on visas and travel as well as asset freezes on such companies and those who control them. These are practical -- and potentially powerful -- tools that can undermine the presumed success of state repression as it begins.

These sanctions can also force governments to reassess their odds of success in continuing their collective killings as their supplies dwindle over time.

Human rights organizations have long argued that such sanctions would be an effective mechanism for outsiders to stymie repressive governments, because they focus on the resources used to commit mass atrocities and on those who supply them. A few years ago, staff at Human Rights First coined the term "enablers" to draw attention to this dynamic. They provided clear documentation of such outsider resourcing to the Sudanese government and its Janjaweed allies as they perpetrated atrocities in Darfur.

George Lopez
George Lopez

Mass atrocities are rather organized crimes, often planned well in advance. Perpetrators are generally creative and resourceful, as the Sudanese have demonstrated time and again in various sections of their nation.

But we can identify a core set of activities that make possible and sustain state violence. Tragic cases, such as in Bosnia, and the more recent slaughters in Sudan and Syria have taught us that the architects of atrocities are dependent on direct or indirect support from a host of external actors for particular goods.

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Particularly in Syria at the moment, various governments, commercial entities and individuals provide a continual flow of material that enables the al-Assad regime to attack its own civilians. By crippling the means to initiate and sustain these killings -- including shutting down money flows, communications networks, access to surveillance technologies and other resources -- the new sanctions can disrupt the planning and execution of such crimes.

For those who would see tech and cell phone companies as unwitting victims of globalization and a U.S .policy of punitive sanctions, unable to rein in the ultimate use of their products, resources exist to assist the orderly compliance of these firms with these new restrictions.

To move toward more responsible control of the end use of particularly sensitive products, corporations can consult responsible trading practices outlined in the guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.N. Global Compact. And certain nongovernmental actors, like the Red Flags project, have provided benchmarks for businesses interested in avoiding complicity in government killings. More direct engagement of businesses, especially mining industries in conflict zones, has been the work of the U.N. Special Representative on Business and Human Rights.

In addition to sanctions, the Obama administration has also challenged companies to develop ways to empower people in civil society, rather than repressive governments, by helping them gain access to certain computer and communication products that emphasize networking. The executive order indicates that research grants will soon be available to incentivize such new approaches to product management and responsibility.

Businesses setting their own standards when prompted by sanctions calls to mind an important historical case that predicts some success for the Obama strategy. More than a decade ago, United Nations sanctions took concerted aim at those corporate agents engaged in mining, selling and buying the "blood diamonds" that financed extensive arms networks and the killing of civilians in Africa.

To end the "blood" dimension and to bring an end to the costly sanctions, the diamond merchants in Europe joined with various governments and civil society actors in an effort to regulate the diamond trade. Through a process of certifying that diamonds mined and traded legally were not contributing to bloody conflict, this arrangement, now known as the Kimberley Process, set a standard that can be adapted by the technology and communications industries which may feel under fire from this new executive order.

Whether via sanctions or incentives, new U.S. action has the potential to constrain the role of accomplices in perpetrating mass atrocities as never before. It is a welcome policy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of George A. Lopez.

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