Obama: Libya must face consequences for "outrageous" violence

US President Barack Obama makes a statement on Libya with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House in Washington, DC, February 23, 2011.
US President Barack Obama makes a statement on Libya with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House in Washington, DC, February 23, 2011.

Updated: Feb. 24, 8:12 AM 

President Obama made his first public comments Wednesday on the deadly attacks on Libyan citizens protesting the oppressive regime of Muammar Qaddafi, saying "the suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable."

Accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom he met before the statement, Mr. Obama said his highest priority is to protect American citizens, noting that he has urged them to leave Libya with the help of the State Department.

He said that the United States is guided by "a set of core principles" in approaching the unrest in the Middle East, and that those principles, among them a condemnation of the use of violence, apply in Libya as well.

"The American people extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all who have been killed and injured," the president said, lamenting "threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya."

"These violate international norms, and every standard of common decency," said Mr. Obama. "This violence must stop."

Mr. Obama said the rights of the Libyan people - among them peaceful assembly, free speech and self-determination - are "not negotiable."

"They must be respected in every country, and they cannot be denied through violence or suppression," said the president. He urged the international community to "speak with one voice" and noted that the United Nations Security Council and other groups have condemned the crackdown.

"Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need and to respect the rights of its people," he said. "It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities and face the cost of continued violations of human rights. This is not simply a concern of the United States. The entire world is watching, and we will coordinate our assistance and accountability measures with the international community."  

Mr. Obama did not mention Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi by name in his remarks. CBS News has learned that the president was "cautious" in his remarks about the situation in Libya because he is concerned that Qaddafi might target Americans still in the country.

Senior White House officials told correspondent Chip Reid that Mr. Obama wants to avoid a war of words with the dictator that could provoke a hostage crisis.

Mr. Obama condemned the violence Wednesday in his first remarks since protests broke out last week, calling it "outrageous" and "unacceptable," but did not mention Qaddafi by name, much less call for him to step down as he eventually did in the case of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The president said that Clinton would travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Monday to convene a session of the Human Rights Council with her foreign counterparts in an effort to maintain a unified international voice. He stressed that the unrest in Libya and elsewhere has not been the result of action by the United States.

President Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaks on the situation in Libya at the White House, February 23, 2011.

"The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region," he said. "This change doesn't represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life...It is the most basic of aspirations that is driving this change, and throughout this time of transition the United States will continue to stand up for freedom, stand up for justice and stand up for the dignity of all people."

Prior to Mr. Obama's statement, Clinton said, "This is now the moment for the international community to act together... to send a clear message to the Libyan government that violence is unacceptable and the Libyan government will be held accountable." In examining options to end the violence, she said that "everything will be on the table."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed Clinton's statement, condemning violations of human rights and calling for those responsible for bloodshed in Libya to be punished.

The European Union is considering sanctions against Libya for the violent crackdown on protesters by Qaddafi. The EU called the attacks potential "crimes against humanity."

One of the challenges for the White House through the period of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has been to articulate a coherent foreign policy for the region, where the United States has played a role in keeping leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in power.

"There is a policy, and we have been very clear about this," White House press secretary Jay Carney said a briefing prior to Mr. Obama's statement. "It does apply to every country in the region--violence against peaceful protesters is unacceptable and the rights of people must be respected. The need for reform is paramount."