The torture of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and the treatment of those held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dealt a blow to the United States' credibility as the world's leader on human rights and the fight against terrorism, a human rights group said Thursday.
"When most governments breach international human rights and humanitarian law, they commit a violation," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report of human rights developments in 60 countries.
"When a government as dominant and influential as the United States openly defies that law and seeks to justify its defiance, it also undermines the law itself and invites others to do the same."
The group urged the Bush administration to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any U.S. officials who participated in, ordered or had command responsibility for torture or mistreatment. It also dismissed the Bush administration's claim that Abu Ghraib prisoner treatment was a problem limited to a few soldiers acting on their own.
An independent commission headed by James R. Schlesinger agreed in August 2004 that the blame lies mainly with the American soldiers who ran the jail. But the panel also said senior commanders and top-level Pentagon officials — including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — can be faulted for failed leadership and oversight.
"In the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants — all affronts to the most basic human rights values — Washington's weakened moral authority is felt acutely," Human Rights Watch says in its report.
The report cited two matters as posing "fundamental threats to human rights" around the world: the treatment of the Abu Ghraib detainees and the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan, in which tens of thousands have died and millions been displaced in a civil war.
Human Rights Watch said the United Nations or "any responsible group of governments" should deploy a force to protect the civilian population and create secure conditions for people to return home.
"Continued inaction risks undermining a fundamental human rights principle: That the nations of the world will never let sovereignty stand in the way of their responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities," Human Rights Watch said.
"The vitality of human rights defense worldwide depends on a firm response to both of these threats," Human Rights Watch concluded.
Elsewhere in the more than 500-page report, the group said there is growing evidence of conflicts between religious communities and the human rights movement, and a backlash against movements for the rights of sexual minorities. Human Rights Watch argues against "efforts in the name of religion, tradition, or morals to censor expression or limit the behavior of others."