The United States has a higher tolerance for torture than any other country on the U.N. Security Council, and Americans are more comfortable with torture than citizens of war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.
Those are two key findings reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday, in a new report highlighting global perspectives on war.
The data comes during a renewed debate over torture in the United States. In the presidential election in November, Americans picked Donald Trump, who has endorsed the use of waterboarding and, he said in February, “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to extract information from terrorism suspects.
Trump appears to have backed away from his commitment to torture since consulting with his nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James N. Mattis. But in an interview with the New York Times last month, Trump said obliquely that if waterboarding was “important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”
Here’s what the American people think, according to the ICRC report:
Researchers found that 33 percent of Americans surveyed said torture was a “part of war.” And 46 percent of Americans said that enemy combatants could be tortured “to obtain important military information.”
By comparison, 16 percent of Afghans and 14 percent of Ukrainians said torture was “part of war.” While 18 percent in South Sudan and 15 percent in China said they would tolerate the torture of enemy combatants. The ICRC interviewed more than 17,000 people from 15 countries and the Palestinian Territories.
That data raises a number of questions about the support for torture and an apparent decrease in respect for international humanitarian law. One of those questions is why Americans are more supportive of torturing enemy combatants than those living in countries in the midst of deadly wars.
“The further away you are from armed conflict, the less sensitive you are to what it actually means,” said Patrick Youssef, the ICRC’s deputy director for Africa and its former head of mission in Iraq.
The American willingness to use torture was part of a worrying trend identified by the ICRC — a growing belief globally that enemy combatants can be tortured for information. When researchers asked that question in 1999, just 28 percent of respondents said enemy combatants could be tortured. This year, 36 percent said it was justified.
That finding has raised concern, ICRC researchers said, about the role of international law in the world’s numerous armed conflicts. The report said the rules of armed conflict, like the Geneva Conventions, “are being questioned perhaps more than at any time in recent history.”
But there’s also a shocking lack of awareness that those rules exist — 39 percent of the Americans who supported torture told the ICRC they “didn’t realize my country had agreed to ban torture” as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions.
The ICRC study is not the first to establish Americans’ increasing tolerance for torture in recent years.
A Pew Research Center study in February found that 58 percent of Americans think the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified. Of 38 nations surveyed, only five countries have a higher tolerance for torturing suspected terrorists, the Pew study found: Uganda (78 percent), Lebanon (72 percent), Israel (62 percent), Kenya (62 percent) and Nigeria (61 percent)
In 2014, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans thought that aggressive interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after Sept. 11, 2001, were justified.