The UN told the US that it has to set a better example in combatting torture and cannot hide behind intelligence activities in refusing to discuss violations of the global ban on prisoner abuse in the war on terror.
The UN Committee Against Torture asked US officials about a series of issues ranging from Washington's interpretation of the absolute ban on torture to its interrogation methods in prisons such as Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
US State Department legal adviser John Bellinger III, leading the US delegation on Friday in its first appearance before the committee in six years, insisted that the US government felt an "absolute commitment to upholding our national and international obligations to eradicate torture."
The delegation told the committee, the UN's watchdog for a 22-year-old treaty forbidding prisoner abuse, that mistakes had occurred in the US treatment of detainees in the war against terror, and that 29 detainees in US facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan had died of what appeared to be abuse or other violations of US law.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson said a total of 120 detainees have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that none had died at Guantanamo. Most of the deaths resulted from natural causes, battlefield injuries or attacks by other detainees, he said.
In the cases of the 29 deaths from suspected abuse, Stimson said, "these alleged violations were properly investigated and appropriate action taken," he said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Barry Lowenkron said the abusive acts against detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison "sickened the American people -- just as they appalled people around the world. They were inexcusable, they were indefensible."
But he said the US conducted more than 600 criminal investigations into allegations of mistreatment and more than 250 people had been held accountable for abusing detainees, Lowenkron said.
But Fernando Marino Menendez, an expert from Spain, noted that Human Rights Watch had said "only a small number received prison sentences and a lot of them were less than one year, even in cases of serious abuse, and only 10 persons were sentenced to a year or more in prison."
Andreas Mavrommatis, who chaired the session, said the US investigations would be more convincing if they were conducted by an independent judge or lawyer rather than by staff of the Defense Department.
He asked what was being done about investigating people higher in the chain of command than the lower level people implicated so far and said the US had an obligation under the treaty not only to investigate abuses when they occur, but to prevent torture from happening in the first place.
Mavrommatis praised the US for its "unique contribution'' historically to the promotion of human rights around the world, but said it had an obligation to be above reproach.
He said the committee had long used the US State Department's annual report on the human rights situation in each country around the world, "but now we're a little bit scared to use it."
Bellinger said the 25-member delegation -- including officials from the defense, justice and homeland security departments -- was committed to answering the committee's questions, but would be unable to discuss "alleged intelligence activities."