One of the most exciting elements in President Obama’s speech on genocide prevention announcing a new Atrocities Prevention Board on Monday was an announcement that the Administration is going to set up a new set of “challenge grants” designed to “encourage technology companies to develop new ways to help residents in countries vulnerable to mass killings to better detect and quickly alert others to impending dangers.” These grants, coupled with new sanctions against those using technology to enable mass atrocities, are strong tools aimed directly at curbing the abuse of communications technology in areas where mass atrocities are taking place.

The idea that market innovation can help us end the world’s most troubling human rights problems is appealing to more than a few of us, I suspect.

I had a very interesting dinner companion at a recent event — the chief executive of a venture capital firm. Our conversation turned to the ongoing slaughter in Syria. What could technology do to end the killing of civilians there? The gentleman mentioned a company called Spotflux, which was setting up alternate routers to enable Syria’s embattled citizens to continue to communicate with each other and with the outside world, ensuring continued visibility for the atrocities.

When it is implemented, the President’s new Executive Order will take the parallel step of sanctioning those individuals who are giving Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the high-tech weapons he is using to shut down channels of communication, thereby forcing people to search out alternatives like Spotflux’s rogue routers, or the global proxy cloud being promoted by our partners at the human rights organization, Access Now.

I use the word “weapons” here intentionally. We should consider carefully the fact that not only in Syria, but throughout the world, guns are not the only weapons used on the battlefield. Information and communications technology, too, can be used as a weapon. In a very short span of time, the world has come to rely critically on communications technology for virtually every type of transaction. Without this enabling technology, the ability to move soldiers or weapons can break down entirely. Taking away communications tools from Assad, and strengthening tools available to individual citizens seeking reforms, may in the end do more to drive change than traditional weaponry.

The Atrocities Prevention Board will have its work cut out for it, and will need to examine all the drivers of mass atrocities and all the leverage points available to address root causes of conflict. Targeting specific problems and approaches to those problems is a good place to start, however. The President has decided to start with communications technology. I’m glad to see the new Board announced side-by-side with this new Executive Order and our organization will be monitoring closely the results.


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