The U.S.-led war on terror has made the world a more dangerous and repressive place, Amnesty International said Wednesday in a report Washington dismissed as "without merit."
The international human rights organization singled out the United States and Britain for detaining terror suspects without trial, under legislation introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks. It also accused other nations, including the Philippines and China, of using security legislation to crack down on political opposition.
"The 'war on terror,' far from making the world a safer place, has made it more dangerous by curtailing human rights, undermining the rule of international law and shielding governments from scrutiny," said Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general, launching the organization's annual report in London.
"The great supporters of human rights during the Cold War now quite readily either roll them back in their own countries or encourage others to do so and turn a blind eye."
"What would have been unacceptable on Sept. 10, 2001, is now becoming almost the norm," she said.
The report said most of the 1,200 foreign nationals - mostly Muslim men of Arab or South Asian origin - detained in the United States during inquires into the Sept. 11 attacks were either deported, released or charged with crimes unrelated to terrorism by the end of 2002.
In Britain, the 11 foreign nationals still in custody at year's end were either asylum seekers or recognized refugees, the report said.
Amnesty said the detention by the United States of 600 foreign nationals at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was a "human rights scandal" and called on America to release or charge those imprisoned there. Spokesman Rob Freer said Amnesty has repeatedly requested access to Guantanamo, as recently as last week, but received no reply.
"Children are among them, the elderly are among them and undoubtedly there are people who were picked up for being at the wrong place at the wrong time," Freer said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denied that the United States was violating the human rights of prisoners at Guantanamo.
"I dismiss that as without merit," he said. "The prisoners in Guantanamo are being treated humanely. They're receiving medical care. They're receiving food. They're receiving far better treatment than they received in the life that they were living previously."
Meanwhile, Khan accused the United States of undermining international law by seeking bilateral agreements to exempt its citizens from charges of human rights abuses by the International Criminal Court.
"There's a dangerous approach now, picking and choosing which bits of human rights law to apply and which bits of international law to respect," she said. "That's a dangerous trend and something we have not seen for decades."
She also said that while the world's attention concentrated on Iraq, there was a "heavy toll on human rights and human lives" in places including Ivory Coast, Colombia, Burundi, Chechnya and Nepal, she said.
"Iraq and Israel and the Occupied Territories are in the news - Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not, despite the imminent threat of genocide," Khan said. "Drawing attention to 'hidden' crises, protecting the rights of the 'forgotten victims' is the biggest challenge we face today."
The White House also deflected the criticism that its focus on terrorism and Iraq came at the expense of crises in other countries.
"I think that as the world increasingly sees the brutality, the horrors that Saddam Hussein carried out against his own people," Fleischer said. "And I think the world is rejoicing in the fact that, thanks to the efforts of the coalition, millions of people who were previously imprisoned are now free."
Amnesty also said a lack of security in Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition victory posed a threat to human rights and development.
"There is a real risk that Iraq will go the way of Afghanistan if no genuine effort is made to heed the call of the Iraqi people for law and order and full respect of human rights," she said.
The organization said that more than 18 months after the war in Afghanistan, millions of Afghans face an uncertain and insecure future.
Among the world's "hidden" crises, Amnesty counted unrest in Congo, particularly in the eastern Ituri province.
The organization also cited abuses in Burundi, including extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture by the government, as well as unlawful killings, abductions, torture and the recruitment of child soldiers by armed groups.
Amnesty also said that while the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian areas occupied by Israeli soldiers was often talked about, it was the "least acted upon by the international community."
By Jane Wardell