The top UN human rights official said on Friday that governments must abide by international law in the war on terrorism or risk creating an environment ripe for abusive conduct.
Louise Arbour said she had "grave concern" about reported secret detention centers, without naming the US in a speech to the new UN Human Rights Council.
The US delegation responded by telling the 47-nation council that "it is US policy to treat captured combatants humanely."
Ambassador Warren Tichenor, who heads the US delegation to the 47-nation council, said the US adhered to its "absolute commitment to uphold our national and international obligations to eradicate torture and to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment worldwide."
John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN in New York, strongly criticized Arbour. He said that rather than singling out the US or Israel, she should have focused instead on the human rights problems in North Korea, Iran, Burma and Zimbabwe.
"It's a question of what the appropriate focus of the top UN human rights official should be, and I think her focus is misplaced," he said.
Arbour, UN high commissioner for human rights, dwelt on the war against terrorism in the first part of her speech, but she did in fact cite reports of "dire conditions in labor camps, grave food shortages and a lack of the most basic freedoms" in North Korea and "the marked worsening of the humanitarian situation" in Myanmar.
She also named a number of problem countries. The only time she named the US in her statement was to praise "several courts" for assuming "an assertive role in combating impunity and protecting a range of human rights."
But it was clear that she was referring to repeated allegations of US abuses when she said that "the reported existence of secret detention centers where suspects are held incommunicado is ... of grave concern."
"Such practices also have a corrosive effect on the rule of law and human rights, and create an environment ripe for other abusive conduct," she said.
While the magnitude of terrorist threats had raised questions about whether the existing legal framework should yield to a new reality, Arbour said, governments must continue to abide by international law, which includes an absolute ban on torture and the right to a fair trial.
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