GENEVA - Washington's "war on terror" after the Sept. 11 attacks has eroded human rights worldwide, creating lingering cynicism that the United Nations must now combat, international law experts said on Monday.
Mary Robinson, who was the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights when al Qaeda militants flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, said the United States caused harm with some of the ways it responded.
"Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and repeal abusive laws and policies," the former Irish president said, warning that harsh U.S. detentions and interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba gave a dangerous signal to other countries that could easily follow suit.
While new U.S. President Barack Obama has announced he will close Guantanamo to break from the practices of his predecessor George W. Bush, Robinson said sweeping changes needed to take place to ensure Washington abandons its "war paradigm".
"There has been severe damage and it needs to be addressed," she told a news conference in Geneva. "We are not more secure. We are more divided, and people are more cynical about the operation of laws."
Arthur Chaskalson, former chief justice of South Africa, said that the United States should launch an inquiry into its counter-terrorism practices, including acts of torture by individual security and intelligence agents.
Although counter-terrorism issues have faded from the front pages since the change of government in Washington, Chaskalson said such practices have shifted around the world and could keep restricting liberties if they are not confronted head-on.
"We all have less rights today than we had five or 10 years ago, and if nothing happens, we will have even less," he told a Geneva briefing to launch an International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) report on counter-terrorism and human rights.
The report found that many undemocratic states have referred to U.S. counter-terrorism practices to justify their own abuses, a trend Robinson said was particularly alarming.
She called on the U.N. Security Council and Human Rights Council to step up their abuse monitoring and to assist poorer nations with police training to better target rights violators.
Counter-terrorism policies worldwide should also be put under the microscope, according to Robinson. "It could warrant a special session of the Human Rights Council," she said.
The 47-member-state body has previously had special sessions on Israel and the Palestinians, Sudan's Darfur region, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and high food prices, and will assess the global financial crisis on Friday.
Robinson also questioned the effectiveness of the Council's universal periodic review, under which every U.N. member has its rights record assessed on a regular rotation.
"We have looked at some of the universal periodic reviews of countries that we know from our hearings have severely abused human rights in their counter-terrorism measures, and it is a soft review, there is no accountability," she said. "There is a necessity now for leadership at the United Nations."
Countries recently reviewed by the Council include China, Russia, Germany, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Hearings for the ICJ report took place in Bogota, Nairobi, Sydney, Belfast, London, Rabat, Washington, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Moscow, Delhi, Islamabad, Toronto, Ottawa, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Brussels.