U.S. defends human rights record at U.N.

GENEVA Fri Nov 5, 2010 2:56pm EDT

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States defended itself against criticism of its human rights record from friend and foe alike on Friday in a United Nations forum that the former Bush administration had boycotted as hypocritical.

Senior U.S. officials said President Barack Obama's government had begun "turning the page" on practices of George W. Bush's administration that had caused global outrage, and denied allegations that the U.S. used torture.

"Let there be no doubt, the United States does not torture and it will not torture," Harold Hongju Koh, State Department legal adviser, told the council.

"Between Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo we have conducted hundreds of investigations regarding detainee abuse allegations and those have led to hundreds of disciplinary actions."

Bush had shunned the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying it did not need to be scolded by countries such as Syria and Cuba whose own records on human rights were poor. It also accused the council of being biased against Israel.

But U.S. conduct in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its campaign against terrorism -- notably its treatment of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay prison and the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad -- has come under heavy criticism from many human rights organizations in recent years.

The Obama administration was committed to closing Guantanamo and ensuring that all detainees held at home or in the war on terrorism were treated humanely, U.S. officials said.

But closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, which now holds 174 detainees, was very complex and required help from allies, the U.S. courts and Congress.

The council will issue its recommendations on Tuesday and the U.S. delegation will indicate which of them are acceptable before reporting back in March when a final report is adopted.

QUEUE TO Criticize

The council's first review of the U.S. rights record was part of a gradual examination of the performance of all 192 U.N. members over a four-year period.

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

Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez spoke first, calling on Washington to end its embargo on the communist-ruled island and to respect its people's right to self-determination.

Iran's delegation accused the United States of violating human rights though covert CIA operations "carried out on pretext of combating terrorism."

But allies also chided the United States.

European countries said Washington should ban the death penalty. Mexico urged it to halt racial profiling and the use of lethal force in controlling illegal migration over their border.

"U.S. 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," said Antonio Ginatta of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International, recalling its long-standing appeals for ending indefinite detention of prisoners and trials before military commissions in Guantanamo, said that the United States 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.

"We feel we got a fair hearing. This is part of an ongoing process to engage with the Council and the U.N.," Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told a news briefing after a three-hour debate.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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