The United States has undermined respect for human rights across the world with its efforts to weaken absolute opposition to torture, Amnesty International charged in its annual report.
In a sobering review of human rights across the globe, Amnesty said the international community lacked the willpower and the means to prevent and punish atrocities, citing the failure to curb crises in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.
It also said national governments had flaunted rule of law in 2004, noting perennial rights violators such as Russia, which continued abuses in Chechnya, and China, with its treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority, as well as Egypt, Israel, Nepal and the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan.
But for the second year running, the London-based group faulted Washington for leading the attack on human rights with its "war on terror".
"When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity and audacity," Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan said at the London launch of the report.
The rhetoric of freedom and justice was being used to "redefine and sanitize torture", Khan said, citing US military terms used to hide mistreatment of prisoners like "stress positions" and "sensory manipulation".
Amnesty called the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of foreign terror suspects are held indefinitely, the "gulag of our times", referring to the notorious prison camps of the Soviet Union.
And it slammed Washington's alleged use of "rendering" -- the secret transfer of detainees to countries known to practice torture -- and its continued refusal to hold a broad investigation despite many reports of detainee abuse from Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Terrorism rose in tandem with increasing abuse by governments, defying US promises to make the world safer in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the group noted in the overarching, 308-page review of 145 countries.
In Iraq, instances of US and British abuse of Iraqi detainees ran parallel to gross human rights violations by insurgents who killed thousands of civilians and staged a series of gruesome executions of foreign hostages.
Lawlessness in Afghanistan, alongside reported US abuse of prisoners, continued to cast a shadow over the post-Taliban government there, Amnesty noted.
In Russia, both Chechen armed groups and federal security forces committed atrocities against civilians, spreading instability beyond the borders of the separatist Caucasus republic.
Amnesty noted the crisis in Beslan, in the nearby republic of North Ossetia, where an estimated 350 people died in September in a hostage-taking at a public school.
And in Spain, 191 people were killed and more than 1,600 injured in simultaneous bombings on March 11 of four commuter trains, allegedly staged by Al-Qaeda militants.
The rights group slammed governments for promoting "politically convenient strategies" to combat terrorism which nonetheless failed to prevent these attacks.
"Not only is it a moral and legal imperative to observe fundamental human rights all the more stringently in the face of such security threats, in practice it is far more likely to be effective in the long term," it argued.
Meanwhile, the United Nations came under fire for being "unable and unwilling to hold its member states to account" for human rights abuses.
Resolutions have thus far failed to stop "war crimes and crimes against humanity" in the Sudanese region of Darfur, while the UN's Commission on Human Rights has become a "forum for horse-trading on human rights", incapable of agreeing on action against abuse in Chechnya, Nepal or Zimbabwe, it said.
Among the few positive trends the group noted in 2004 were British and US legal decisions that found against the government's anti-terror measures, and the rise in grassroots activism.
"Global activism is a dynamic and growing force. It is also the best hope of achieving freedom and justice for all humanity," Amnesty said.
Khan told journalists that there was cause for hope, despite government "failure of leadership".
"People are hungry for justice and freedom."