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US urged to close Guantanamo and investigate torture claims

In its first review by the UN Human Rights Council, the US faced a barrage of calls to investigate allegations of torture and close Guantanamo. European countries joined appeals for a halt to the death penalty.

Montage of President Barack Obama and Guantanamo detention center

Many countries call on President Obama to close Guantanamo

The US delegation also heard demands for an end to discrimination against minorities and immigrants and defended its human rights record from criticism from foes including Cuba and Iran.

The debate took place in the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is gradually reviewing the performance of all 192 UN member states.

"While we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo. We will continue to work to ensure that our laws are fair and justly implemented," Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told the Geneva forum.

"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.

Long line of speakers

But diplomats from countries at odds with Washington - some of whom queued overnight to be among the first on the speakers' list - hammered the US delegation for alleged abuses.

Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez spoke first, calling on Washington to end the blockade on his island country and respect the Cuban people's right to self-determination.

Venezuela's envoy German Mundarain Hernandez said it should "close Guantanamo and secret detention centers around the world, punish those people who torture, disappear and execute detainees arbitrarily and provide compensation to victims."

General view of the UN Human Rights Council

The review by the UN Human Rights Council is not binding

Iran's delegation urged the United States to "halt serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law including covert external operations by the CIA carried out on pretext of combating terrorism".

Mixed review by Russia and China

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 centers, 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 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.

Europe calls for end to capital punishment

The Western reaction on allegations of torture and abuse was more muted.

European countries including Britain recommended a moratorium or abolition of the death penalty, while France urged President Barack Obama to "honor 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.

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."

Lethal injection room at the Mississippi State Penitentiary

European countries demanded an end to the death penalty

"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.

Author: Michael Knigge (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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