WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday denounced Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi for using "mercenaries and thugs" against his own people and called on the embattled ruler to step down immediately.
She said the Obama administration was considering every option against Kadafi and that nothing was "off the table."
Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton said governments of the world must support the push for democracy in the Middle East.
"The process of transition must be protected from antidemocratic influences from wherever they come," Clinton said.
Clinton's remarks came as the European Union agreed to impose economic sanctions on the crumbling Kadafi regime, including an arms embargo, a freeze of Kadafi's assets and a travel ban. That came after the United States announced similar sanctions Friday.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council also voted to impose economic sanctions on Libya.
Clinton welcomed the actions, saying "the international community has a responsibility to protect universal rights." Her trip to Switzerland is part of an effort to coordinate a Western response to the unrest in the Middle East.
In Washington, the White House said the administration was actively reaching out to Libyan opposition groups but cautioned that it was too early to recognize any of them officially, spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.
And although the administration thinks exile is "certainly one option" for Kadafi, Carney wouldn't say whether that was something the U.S. would try to facilitate. U.S. officials are "actively considering" imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, along with a variety of humanitarian aid Clinton is promoting in Geneva.
Obama plans to discuss Libya with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a meeting later Monday, Carney said.
In her remarks, Clinton had particularly harsh words for Iran, saying its government had "consistently pursued policies of violence abroad and tyranny at home" and assailed its government for cracking down on dissidents.
"The denial of human dignity in Tehran is an outrage," Clinton said.
She also criticized the human-rights council, a controversial organization the U.S. joined in 2009 at Obama's behest, for having a "structural bias" against Israel and the United Nations for, in the past, supporting regimes such as Kadafi's. But she praised the council for acting Friday to suspend Libya's membership in the body.
Clinton said the U.S. stood ready to assist the nascent democracy movements in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and elsewhere.
"We are well aware of the challenges that come with these kinds of transitions," she said. "You cannot create changes and economic opportunities overnight.
"These new bursts of democracy," Clinton said, "can be derailed by autocrats who use violence and deception to stay in power."
She warned governments in the Middle East and elsewhere that they would continue to deny their citizens the chance for economic advancement at their peril.
"Make no mistake. This popular wave for reform is spreading, not receding," Clinton said. Thanks to technology, she said, "young people know everything that is going on everywhere, and they will no longer will tolerate a status quo that blocks their aspirations."