The recent discovery of 170 emaciated and in some instances apparently tortured prisoners at a secret Iraqi Interior Ministry compound has been widely reported across the world.
Addressing the European Parliament, a junior British minister, Lord Bach, speaking on behalf of the 25 EU member states, said any human rights abuses should be investigated and dealt with in a "sensible and proper way."
The EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said that if the violations did in fact occur, they would run counter to the values that the EU seeks to promote in its cooperation with Iraq.
"On the question of torture and all that has happened recently -- first, of course, we have to see whether all the allegations are right, I think also that is correct to do; but then, if it were so, it is clear, as also Lord Bach already said, human rights are part of our very, very strong values, and those values that we want to also export to Iraq, and for them to consider them," Ferrero-Waldner said.
Ferrero-Waldner noted that Iraq's prime minister has already promised to launch an investigation "about torture committed by Iraqis themselves."
During the debate on the floor of the parliament, most political groups expressed outrage at revelations that the United States military has used phosphorous bombs against insurgents in Iraq. The only notable exception was the right-wing People's Party, the parliament's biggest faction.
The European Parliament is an important venue for debate but has no direct say in EU foreign policy. It is often more critical of the United States than most member state governments. That criticism has been fueled in recent weeks by allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
Graham Watson is the leader of the liberals, the Parliament's third largest political group. He said today that the EU must insist on a UN inquiry.
"The Pentagon's acknowledgement a few hours ago that the U.S. used phosphorous incendiary devices against civilians in Fallujah [is a major concern]," Watson said. "The European Union must demand a UN inquiry into the use of these banned weapons."
The Pentagon has admitted using the weapons, but not against civilians. It also says that the United States has not signed any international treaties banning the use of phosphorous bombs -- which cause extensive burns upon contact with skin.
Watson has written to EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asking them to condemn the use of phosphorous bombs against civilians.
Veronique de Keyser, a Belgian MEP who spoke for the second-biggest, socialist faction, said the EU must speak up about the "atrocities." She said all EU assistance to Iraq is futile unless the Iraqis are "given a feeling international justice exists."
Meanwhile, Watson said the U.S.-led coalition itself appears implicated in systematic rights abuses. This, he said, directly undermines efforts to stabilise Iraq.
"[Another reason for concern is] yesterday's revelation in sections of the media that of more than 35,000 Iraqi civilians, detained by the coalition, only 5 percent have ever been brought to trial and many have been denied legal counsel. What kind of example are we setting?" Watson said.
Today, Lord Bach responded by quoting a declaration adopted by EU foreign ministers in October saying the human rights situation in Iraq has improved since the fall of Saddam Hussein. He said terrorism and insecurity remain the biggest obstacles for Iraq.
He also rejected calls for the coalition forces to quickly leave Iraq.
"The issue of coalition troops has been raised during the debate, and it's certainly an important issue," Lord Bach said. "But honorable members of this parliament will forgive me if I mention what President [Jalal] Talabani, the Kurdish leader whose people suffered so appallingly under Saddam Hussein, said only last weekend. 'Immediate withdrawal,' he said, 'would be a catastrophe and lead to a kind of civil war,' he said.' We will lose what we have done for liberating Iraq from the worst kind of dictatorship.'"
Lord Bach said the EU will continue offering Iraq both money and expertise to build up a judiciary and police forces that are attuned to international rights standards. EU member states are currently considering how and whether to extend an ongoing "rule of law" mission in the country.
Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner told the parliament today that the EU will not be sending observers to monitor the December elections in Iraq. She said it would be "too dangerous for our people" but promised EU assistance and training for domestic Iraqi monitors.