For the first time, the US faced the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, over accusations of human rights violations.
On Friday, council members levelled a barrage of criticisms at the US administration, calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and for investigations into alleged torture by US troops abroad.
This is the council’s first review of the US human rights record. It is part of a gradual examination of the performance of all 192 UN members over a four-year period.
The US were accused by Iran’s delegation of violating human rights through covert CIA operations “carried out on pretext of combating terrorism”.
European countries said Washington should ban the death penalty, and Mexico urged the US to halt racial profiling and the use of lethal force in controlling illegal migration over its border.
The world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, called the US to better promote religious tolerance.
Antonio Ginatta, of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said about the council’s criticism : “US officials were often reduced to restating current practices that grossly violate human rights, like the death penalty, poor prison conditions and sentencing youth offenders to life without parole.”
According to Amnesty International the US must also hold accountable those responsible for torture.
“These recommendations must be at the heart of rebuilding the United States’ human rights record,” it said in a statement.
But the US strongly defended its human rights record. Harold Koh, a US state department legal adviser, telling the UN council: “Let there be no doubt, the United States does not torture and it will not torture.”
He said: “Between Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo we have conducted hundreds of investigations regarding detainee abuse allegations and those have led to hundreds of disciplinary actions.”
174 detainees are currently held at the Guantanamo Bay prison, maintained by the US in Cuba.
Barack Obama, the US president, had pledged to close the highly controversial facility within a year of taking office, but missed that deadline.
Harold Koh responded earlier to countries who bemoaned the failure to close the prison, saying that “the president cannot close Guantanamo alone”.
According to him any such move would require help from Congress, the US courts and foreign allies willing to take in released inmates.
Since the revelation that George Bush, the former US president, personally authorised the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, the US has come under renewed pressure over human rights.
According to The New York Times, which obtained an advance copy of the ex-president’s book Decision Points, Bush responded “damn right” when the CIA sought permission to use waterboarding.
Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning. It has been described as torture and president Obama outlawed it shortly after coming into office.
Recently, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released allegations that the US turned a blind eye to abuses by Iraqi forces.
Bush had shunned the UN Human Rights Council, saying it did not need to be scolded by countries such as Syria and Cuba because their records on human rights were poor.
Those views were echoed on Friday by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican Representative who is set to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee when a new US Congress convenes in January.
According to the 47-member Human Rights Council is “dominated by rogue regimes”.
“Serial human rights abusers like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela all hijacked the platform to attack the US for imaginary violations,” she said.
“The US should walk out of this rogues’ gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers.”
But after the council debate, Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, told a news briefing that the US got “a fair hearing”.
“This is part of an ongoing process to engage with the Council and the UN,” he said.
The council is due to issue its recommendations on Tuesday. Then the US delegation will indicate which of them are acceptable before reporting back in March, when a final report will be adopted.