The United States faced a barrage of calls to investigate allegations of torture and shut down Guantanamo Bay detention centre on Friday in its first review by the UN’s top human rights assembly.
European countries joined appeals for a halt to the death penalty, and there was trenchant criticism of Washington’s recent human rights record during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the detention and interrogation of terror suspects.
It prompted a robust defence from senior US officials at the 47-member Human Rights Council, although US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner acknowledged that they “were not satisfied with the status quo.”
“Let there be no doubt, the United States does not and will not torture,” State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told the council.
“This administration began by turning the page and unequivocally ensuring the humane treatment of all individuals in US custody in armed conflict,” he insisted.
Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez called on the United States to “halt war crimes and the killing of civilians,” while Venezuela’s German Mundarain Hernandez recommended that Washington “put to trial those responsible for victims of torture.”
China and Russia acknowledged progress in health and education, as well as attempts to tackle what the Russian ambassador called the “more odious” human rights violations during conflicts.
But they both urged the swift closure of terror detention centres, while Russia recommended “a careful investigation of the facts in the use of torture especially in Guantanamo and Bagram” air force base in Afghanistan.
The half-day public debate came just two weeks after whistleblowing website WikiLeaks published 400,000 classified US documents on the Iraq war, reviving concern about a lack of accountability for abuse.
Koh insisted that cases had been subject to disciplinary action, although he made no mention of the broader judicial prosecution demanded by human rights campaigners.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that former US president George W. Bush wrote in his new memoir that he personally gave the go-ahead for CIA officers to waterboard self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The Western reaction on allegations of torture and abuse was more muted.
European countries including Britain, as well as Australia, recommended a moratorium or abolition of the death penalty, while France urged President Barack Obama to “honour his promise” in 2009 to close Guantanamo.
Koh responded: “While the commitment has not wavered, the task is complex. President Obama cannot do it alone.”
A total of 172 detainees remain there, out of 242 when Obama took office in 2008, he added, insisting on the need for help from Congress, the courts and US allies willing to host ex-detainees.
After Arab countries raised concerns about “Islamophobia” in the United States, Posner acknowledged that US Muslims had also highlighted “a pattern of intolerance and discrimination” during a civil society meeting.
“We’re committed to addressing this and we’re taking a number of steps to do so,” he said.
The 36-strong US delegation underlined the country’s constitutionally enshrined tradition on human rights and progress over the 20th century, but recognised that the US record was “not perfect.”
“While there were some politically motivated conversations, overall the conversation was constructive dialogue on international human rights,” delegation chief Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary at the State Department, told journalists afterwards.
Although no action is taken in the four-yearly “Universal Periodic Review” it exposes governments to examination by their peers and the UN. The US had refused to join the UN council under the Bush administration.