US faces calls for torture probes at UN rights meet

5th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

The United States faced a barrage of calls from its diplomatic foes on Friday to halt or investigate allegations of torture, during its first review in the UN Human Rights Council.

There were also widespread calls for a halt to the death penalty and 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 sharp defence from senior US officials at the 47 member 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," added State Department legal adviser Harold Koh.

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" and interrogations.

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 called for 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 in the UN's top human rights assembly comes 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.

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.

But the session also brought some awkward domestic issues for President Barack Obama's administration into the limelight, campaigners said.

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" to close Guantanamo.

Koh responded: "While the commitment has not waivered, the task is complex. President Obama cannot do it alone."

Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the United States would be "on the spot over some glaring problems in its human rights record -- from the death penalty to unnecessary detention of immigrants."

"This is a chance for the US to confirm its commitment to human rights by accepting the criticism and making improvements," he added.

Washington has mobilised about 30 officials for its delegation at the session headed by three assistant secretaries of state.

"We appreciate the opportunity to improve our own human rights record and we want to acknowledge up front that we do not believe our human rights record is perfect," the US ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, told journalists.

The four-yearly "Universal Periodic Review" is based on reports by the United Nations, the country concerned, as well as a summary of observations by campaign groups.

Although no action is taken, it exposes governments to questioning by their peers and especially their critics.

US ambassador Donahoe said delegation officials from Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the Justice and State departments could take part in an informal face-to-face "Town Hall" meeting organised with campaigners later on Friday.

© 2010 AFP

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