UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The number of Americans who would condone torture, at least when used on terrorists in order to save lives, has risen over the past two years and now stands at over 40 percent, according to a new opinion poll.
The poll released by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project managed by the University of Maryland, found that a narrow majority of Americans — 53 percent — think all torture should be banned.
But 31 percent would accept it in terrorism cases to save innocent lives and a further 13 percent said it should be allowed in other circumstances as well, the nationwide poll of 1,309 people found. The remaining 3 percent did not know or did not answer. The margin of error was 3.3 percent.
WorldPublicOpinion said a 2006 poll found that 36 percent of Americans would accept torture in terrorism or other cases, compared with 44 percent now.
The latest poll was part of an international survey of public attitudes to torture, which found that 57 percent of respondents in 19 countries opposed it under all circumstances. But in India, Nigeria, Turkey and South Korea, a majority agreed with torture at least in some cases.
The findings were issued at the United Nations ahead of International Victims of Torture Day on Thursday.
The issue is controversial in the United States because of reports of tough questioning of terrorism suspects at U.S. detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President George W. Bush has said the United States does not practice torture. But the Central Intelligence Agency has admitted using “waterboarding”, a form of simulated drowning, and a recent Justice Department probe cited cases of sleep disruption, “short shackling” and other physical techniques.
People polled were asked to comment on the statement: “Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that would save innocent lives.”
WorldPublicOpinion had little explanation for the apparent rise in U.S. public tolerance for torture except to say that “the U.S. public receives a steady stream of news reports about terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In other countries, it said, events in the past 18 months may have influenced the public. There had been attacks by Kashmiri separatists in India and Kurdish separatists in Turkey, while two South Korean aid workers had been kidnapped and killed by Taliban rebels in Afghanistan.
But Steve Kull of WorldPublicOpinion told a U.N. news conference on Tuesday that “the Bush administration taking the position in defense of waterboarding ... I think probably has contributed to some extent to a weakening of the norm globally.”
Yvonne Terlingen, U.N. representative of rights group Amnesty International, told the news conference, “The role played by the United States in undermining the universal prohibition on torture cannot be underestimated.”
U.S. mission spokesman Richard Grenell dismissed the claim, saying Terlingen “knows the United States does not torture. The American men and women who protect us deserve our support.”
Some 145 of the 192 U.N. member states are parties to a 1985 U.N. convention banning torture. But Amnesty says a majority of states either practice it secretly or are complicit in it by sending people back to countries where they know they will be tortured.
India, which had the highest percentage — 59 percent — of people condoning torture for one reason or another, has signed but not ratified the convention.
Terlingen said it was “really shocking” that overall in the 19 countries polled as few as 57 percent opposed torture.