Geneva (AP) - The U.S. stood accused Friday of human rights violations ranging from racial discrimination to prison overcrowding and abuses by its troops, as friends and foes lined up to chide Washington in a U.N. forum the U.S. has pledged to be an equal member of rather than shun, as the past administration did.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer said Washington was proud of its record but prepared to engage critics during the country's first comprehensive review before the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Anticipating harsh words from traditional adversaries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, Brimmer took a jibe at those countries' restrictions on freedom of speech by telling the 47-nation council that the Obama administration was used to hearing criticism from its own citizens at home, in newspapers, blogs and talk radio shows.
"Some are respectful and constructive, some are not," she said. "We protect them all."
In a forceful speech that highlighted U.S. achievements as well as shortcomings, Brimmer also noted that it was "our own people, to whom we are ultimately accountable," even as she repeated President Barack Obama's willingness to hear other nations' recommendations for how the United States can improve its record.
Among the first to challenge Washington was Russia, which urged the U.S. to abolish the death penalty. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, called on Washington to better promote religious tolerance, and Mexico complained that racial profiling had become a common practice in some U.S. states.
China was among dozens of countries urging the U.S. to ratify key international conventions on the rights of women and children that Washington has signed but Congress has yet to approve. Human rights experts say the likelihood that these treaties will pass was diminished by Republican gains in Tuesday's midterm elections.
"We acknowledge imperfection," said Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, adding that while the "glaring original flaw" of slavery had been abolished, the Obama administration was "not satisfied with the status quo."
Responding to some domestic U.S. commentators who say that inviting criticism from countries like Iran in the U.N. forum is a mistake, Posner retorted that "this is what principled engagement looks like."
"We are trying to lead by example," he told reporters after the meeting. "We're not going to do things because some other government tells us to do them. We're going to do them because they're the right thing to do."
The U.S. came under new pressure over human rights Friday with the revelation that former U.S. President George W. Bush personally authorized the waterboarding of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The practice, a form of simulated drowning, has been described as torture and Obama outlawed it shortly after coming into office.
According to The New York Times, which obtained an advance copy of "Decision Points," due in bookstores on Nov. 9, Bush responded "damn right" when the CIA sought permission to use waterboarding.
Asked about the revelation, Posner said the U.S. has "a clear policy going forward there will be no torture, no cruel treatment."
"We're not mincing words. We're not winking and nodding," he said. "The prohibition against torture and cruel treatment applies to every U.S. official, every agency, everywhere in the world. There is an absolute prohibition as a matter of law and policy."
U.S. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told The Associated Press that the question of whether a former U.S. president could be prosecuted for acts committed in office hadn't been resolved.
"They have carefully avoided it in past circumstances," he said. "Richard Nixon was not named as a defendant, he was an unindicted coconspirator. I know of no case in which a former president has been prosecuted."
Earlier, Koh responded to countries who bemoaned the failure to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by saying "the President cannot close Guantanamo alone" and would need help from Congress, the U.S. courts as well as foreign allies willing to take in released inmates.
"Our intensive efforts to close that facility continue every day," he said.
The three-hour meeting of the Geneva-based council, which the U.S. only joined last year after ending a de facto boycott by the Bush administration, is seen as a key test of Washington's willingness to engage the international community through the U.N. forum.
Many countries and rights groups praised the U.S. for its 20-page report -- compiled with the input of civic and social organizations -- though few observers expect the meeting to result in any immediate improvement on issues such as terrorism trials before a military commission, alleged unfair treatment of illegal immigrants and racial disparities in sentencing of drug offenders.
"Recognition of problems is a first step," said Antonio M. Ginatta, director of advocacy at New York-based Human Rights Watch.