LONDON - Governments are blocking progress on human rights by refusing to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) or by shielding their allies from justice, human rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday.
Releasing its annual report, Amnesty said 2009 was a landmark year for international justice because the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region.
Bashir, due to be inaugurated on Thursday after being re-elected president last month, is the world's only sitting leader to be indicted by the Hague-based ICC.
"There has been progress in terms of international justice but governments are either holding themselves above the law, for example, by not signing up to the ICC or shielding their political allies when it's holding them to account," Amnesty's interim secretary-general, Claudio Cordone, told Reuters.
The African Union's refusal to cooperate with the ICC warrant -- with exceptions such as South Africa and Botswana -- was an example of governmental failure to put justice before politics, the rights group said.
Cordone urged states, particularly G20 nations, to prove their commitment to "global leadership" by fully signing up to the ICC. Of the G20, seven have yet to do so: the United States, China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Cordone expressed confidence the United States would eventually become a member of the ICC, saying Amnesty had been encouraged by some strong statements in favour of human rights and accountability by President Barack Obama.
"If we're serious in delivering that, one obvious signal would be that they finally join the ICC. In that sense I'm confident that will happen but it may still take a long time and persuasion on the part of many people," he said.
Cordone said the ICC should expand its cases beyond Africa, where it is investigating crimes committed in Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic and Kenya as well as Sudan.
"It's true they've been limited to Africa so we would expect the court to investigate other areas whether it is Colombia, or so on, to show it is truly impartial," Cordone said.
Cordone said the United States had started 2009 "positively" with Obama ordering an end to the CIA's secret detention programme and the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
But by the end of the year, Guantanamo Bay was still open despite Obama's promise to close the prison camp within one year, while a prison on Bagram airbase in Afghanistan still held detainees in violation of international standards.
"There has been hardly any accountability for violations during the "war on terror,"" Cordone told a news conference.
Amnesty said the U.N. Human Rights Council had shown bias against Israel, while the U.N. Security Council had shielded Israel from scrutiny after Israel's 2008-2009 military assault in the Gaza Strip.
It said Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, were still ignoring a call for accountability by the Goldstone report into the offensive, and that international pressure was needed.
Amnesty also highlighted what it said was the U.N. Human Rights Council's "paralysis" over Sri Lanka, which last May declared victory over the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and an end to a 25-year separatist war.
"Despite evidence of war crimes and other abuses by both the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers in the final phases of the conflict, last year the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution effectively drafted by Sri Lanka which applauded the defeat of the Tigers," Amnesty said.
"The government only this month has announced a commission of inquiry, but this can have no credibility given the government's long history of sham inquiries."