The report's lead essay raises alarm about the treatment of the 550 mostly Afghan and Iraqi detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as the disappearance of other detainees.
It says the Bush administration refuses to disown the practice of transferring suspects to third governments that use torture, nor does it clearly reject all forms of torture and coercive interrogation.
The result, according to Human Rights Watch, has been a serious erosion in rights standards worldwide. The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, told RFE/RL the report aims to reclaim the international prohibition of torture and to redeem the voice of the United States as a credible champion of human rights.
"There is a need for a real shift in policy by the Bush administration, an unequivocal statement that it will no longer engage not only in torture, which it's going to disclaim, but also that it will no longer use cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment -- the other part of the international prohibition and something that the Bush administration tries to ignore in all its public statements and indeed flouts in its actual conduct," Roth said.
The detainees at Guantanamo Bay are accused of links to Al-Qaeda or Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime. Many have been held without charge for almost three years.
The U.S. government classifies them as "enemy combatants," which provides fewer legal protections than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. The nominee for U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, told a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing last week why the administration decided against applying the conventions.
"[Applying Geneva Conventions to Al-Qaeda] would require us to keep detainees housed together where they could share information, they could coordinate their stories, they could plan attacks against guards," Gonzales said. "It would mean that they would enjoy combat immunity from prosecution of certain war crimes."
The U.S. military says it treats inmates at the camp humanely, but several detainees have said after release that they were tortured. Recently released memos from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said military interrogators in Guantanamo used torture techniques.
In response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the defense department set up Combatant Status Review Tribunals to determine if someone held at Guantanamo is an enemy combatant. Those hearings face further legal challenges.
Based on investigations triggered by the Abu Ghurayb scandal that broke in 2004, the Defense Department says 137 military members have been disciplined or face discipline for abusing detainees. A number of military investigations are still pending.
But Human Rights Watch calls for the Bush administration to go beyond current measures and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate any high-level responsibility for torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of prisoners.
Roth, the organization's director, said U.S. conduct in Guantanamo and Abu Ghurayb prison in Iraq has made it easier for other governments to ignore human rights. Russia, for example, cites Abu Ghurayb to blame abuses in Chechnya on low-level soldiers, said Roth.
"It's been a disaster both because it has given abusive governments a new excuse to fend off criticism of their human rights abuses [and because] it has weakened the moral authority of the United States which, after all, traditionally has been one of the most important supporters of human rights."
At the United Nations, the United States tried in 2004 to keep Sudan off the UN Human Rights Commission and sponsored a General Assembly resolution censuring Belarus for its human rights policies. It lost both efforts after diplomats from both countries accused the United States of hypocrisy, pointing to Abu Ghurayb and Guantanamo.
Lee Casey, a Washington-based lawyer who served in the Justice Department in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, told RFE/RL that there is no need for a special prosecutor, given the evidence available of lower-level misconduct and said that the inquiries under way are sufficient.
Casey said the criticism of U.S. antiterror policies by groups like Human Rights Watch is misplaced. He said they should balance their assessments on issues such as detentions against the risks posed by terror groups to civilians.
"They don't come up with any plausible alternative on how one might actually prevent -- and that's the key -- prevent the kinds of terrorist attacks on civilians that our enemies engage in, without using 'coercive methods,' whatever those methods may be. Basically, they just don't view that as their problem," Casey said.
Casey acknowledged the blow to the U.S. image caused by the Abu Ghurayb scandal. But he said U.S. actions -- aimed at preventing the deaths of civilians -- are fundamentally different from regimes which abuse human rights to remain in power.
"Certainly, Abu Ghurayb has made things much more difficult, and those people did terrific harm to the national interest in a time of war," Casey said. "Their punishment should be very harsh indeed. But you still have to make the argument [that] this is simply different."
Since the United States mounted its war on terrorism in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, it has stressed that treatment of terrorists and terrorist suspects requires new principles for international law. But the Human Rights Watch report says the United States has betrayed human rights principles, especially in its abuse of detainees.
The Human Rights Watch report also singles out ethnic cleansing in Darfur as posing a "fundamental threat" to human rights. Tens of thousands have died and millions displaced in western Sudan. The group says the United Nations or "any responsible group of governments" should send a force to protect civilians in the region and create conditions for people to return home safely.
The rights monitor says continued inaction in Darfur risks undermining a fundamental human rights principle: "that the nations of the world will never let sovereignty stand in the way of their responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities."