The European Union must fill the leadership void on human rights left by the United States, which forfeited the role with its harsh treatment of terror suspects, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

The leading rights group released its 556-page World Report 2007 on the fifth anniversaryof the U.S. first sending detainees to its controversial detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Since the U.S. can't provide credible leadership on human rights, European countries must pick up the slack," the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said. "Instead, the European Union is punching well below its weight."

The voice of the U.S. "now rings hollow — an enormous loss for the human rights cause," Roth said in an essay at the start of the report.

He cited a speech last September by U.S. President George W. Bush, in which hespoke of an "alternative set of (interrogation) procedures."

"The last year dispelled any doubt that the Bush administration's use of torture and other mistreatment was a matter of policy dictated at the top rather than the aberrant misconduct of a few low-level interrogators," he wrote.

The New York-based group also said rights conditions in China "deteriorated significantly" in 2006 as authorities confronted rising social unrest with "stricter controls of the press, internet, academics and lawyers."

Russia, Egypt cited for stifling dissent

The report also found a "further deterioration" in rights protection in Russia, symbolized by the murder last fall of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Egypt, meanwhile, displayed a "heavy hand" against political dissent in 2006 by renewing emergency rule for an additional two years, which provided a continued basis for arbitrary detention and trials before military and state security courts, the report said.

The report also alleged the Israeli Defence Forces violated the laws of war "by failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians" during the summer conflict with Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon.

UN's Ban must lead

In a separate essay, Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch challenged new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea to speak out forcefully in defence of human rights.

"As South Korea's foreign minister, he was willing to subordinate human rights concerns to other objectives in his country's dialogue with North Korea," Hicks said. "In his new position, he will need to take on those who want to overlook human rights for the sake of political expediency and confront those responsible for human rights abuses."

The report also cited deteriorating situations in other countries:

  • Iraq: The human rights situation worsened significantly in 2006. The continuing armed conflict became increasingly sectarian in nature, with many commentators declaring the onset of a civil war.
  • Afghanistan: By late 2006, Afghanistan was on the precipice of again becoming a haven for human rights abusers, criminals and extremists, many of whom in the past have severely abused Afghans, particularly women and girls.
  • China: By pouring aid and investment into countries guilty of widespread rights abuses, China put its own economic and political interests above the rights of mistreated citizens. Among such countries were Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. China failed to use its influence to promote better human rights in these countries.
  • Sudan: Dissent over a May 2006 peace accord for Darfur generated further conflict and serious abuses of civilians, including forced displacement, rape, killings, and increasing attacks on humanitarian aid workers. Overall, Sudan's human rights record remained abysmal in 2006.
  • Iran: Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and assembly, deteriorated in 2006. The government routinely tortured and mistreated detained dissidents, including through prolonged solitary confinement.
  • North Korea: The authorities allowed neither the freedom of information, association, movement, and religion, nor organized political opposition, labour activism, or independent civil society. Arbitrary arrests, torture, lack of due process and fair trials, and executions remain of grave concern.
With files from the Associated Press