|Obama has missed his self-imposed deadline to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office [EPA]
The United States has for the first time faced the United Nations Human Rights Council over accusations of human rights violations.
Council members in Geneva, Switzerland, levelled a barrage of criticisms at the US administration on Friday, calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and for investigations into alleged torture by US troops abroad.
The council's first review of the US human rights record was part of a gradual examination of the performance of all 192 UN members over a four-year period.
Iran's delegation accused the US of violating human rights though covert CIA operations "carried out on pretext of combating terrorism".
European countries said Washington should ban the death penalty. Mexico urged it to halt racial profiling and the use of lethal force in controlling illegal migration over its border.
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, called on Washington to better promote religious tolerance.
'Grossly violating rights'
Commenting on the council's criticisms, Antonio Ginatta of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: "US officials were often reduced to restating current practices that grossly violate human rights, like the death penalty, poor prison conditions and sentencing youth offenders to life without parole."
Amnesty International said that the US must also hold accountable those responsible for torture.
"These recommendations must be at the heart of rebuilding the United States' human rights record," it said in a statement.
The US vigorously defended its human rights record, with Harold Koh, a US state department legal adviser, telling the UN council: "Let there be no doubt, the United States does not torture and it will not torture."
He said: "Between Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo we have conducted hundreds of investigations regarding detainee abuse allegations and those have led to hundreds of disciplinary actions."
The Guantanamo Bay prison, maintained by the US in Cuba and which currently holds 174 detainees, has been highly controversial.
Barack Obama, the US president, had pledged to close the facility within a year of taking office, but missed that deadline.
Earlier, Koh responded to countries who bemoaned the failure to close the prison, saying that "the president cannot close Guantanamo alone".
He said any such move would require help from Congress, the US courts and foreign allies willing to take in released inmates.
The US has come under renewed pressure over human rights with the revelation that George Bush, the former US president, personally authorised the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind.
According to The New York Times, which obtained an advance copy of the ex-president's book Decision Points, Bush responded "damn right" when the CIA sought permission to use waterboarding.
The practice of waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, has been described as torture and Obama outlawed it shortly after coming into office.
Al Jazeera's Kristen Saloomey, reporting from the UN headquarters, said there was a "real attempt" to distance the Obama administration from practices used under Bush.
"This will probably not satisfy the critics however, in particular in the arena of drone attacks and these new allegations of torture which came out through WikiLeaks recently, where it is alleged that the US turned a blind eye to abuses by Iraqi forces," she said.
Bush had shunned the UN Human Rights Council, saying it did not need to be scolded by countries such as Syria and Cuba whose own records on human rights were poor.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican Representative who is set to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee when a new US Congress convenes in January, echoed those views on Friday.
She said that the 47-member Human Rights Council was "dominated by rogue regimes".
"Serial human rights abusers like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela all hijacked the platform to attack the US for imaginary violations," she said.
"The US should walk out of this rogues' gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers."
But Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, told a news briefing after the council debate that the US got "a fair hearing".
"This is part of an ongoing process to engage with the Council and the UN," he said.
The council will issue its recommendations on Tuesday and the US delegation will indicate which of them are acceptable before reporting back in March when a final report is adopted.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies