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Acceptance of Torture During War is Growing


Protesters simulate the use of waterboarding on a volunteer at an anti-torture rally in front of the Justice Department in Washington, Nov. 5, 2007.

A new study has found changes in public opinion on the issue of torture and its use to get “important military information.”

The study found that the percentage of people who felt torture was a useful tool increased in 16 countries over a 17-year period. The approval rate this year was 36 percent, compared to 28 percent in 1999.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organized the survey and reported the findings.

Researchers questioned more than 17,000 people between June and September of 2016. Most of those questioned were from countries in conflict. Other subjects lived in Switzerland or the five permanent members of the United Nations: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

Morally Wrong

The president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, says the results were troubling.

"The percentage of those who think it is acceptable to torture a captured enemy combatant in order to obtain important military information has risen from 28 to 36 percent today in the poll. Even more shocking, only slightly less than half of the people - 48 percent as of this year - believe this behavior is wrong compared to 66 percent in the 1999 survey."

Survey: Torture and War
Survey: Torture and War

Survey: Views on Torture
Survey: Views on Torture

However, Maurer said he felt more hopeful after seeing the answers to other survey questions. Eighty percent of those surveyed believed that wars should have limits, and that fighters should not target civilians.

The same percentage also believed that attacking hospitals, emergency medical vehicles, and health care workers as a way to weaken the enemy is wrong.

Maurer noted that torture is illegal under international humanitarian law. “Torture is wrong,” he said, adding that it can harm communities for generations.

The ICRC president recently met with military officials in Russia. He told VOA that he did not find anyone in Moscow or Washington who thought that torture works. He said that not only is torture morally wrong, but it also is not effective in finding the truth.

Empathy to human suffering

The survey also found that people living in the Security Council’s permanent members were more likely to accept civilian deaths than people from areas affected by war.

In the five, only 50 percent of people said that it was wrong to attack enemy fighters in populated areas, “knowing that many civilians would be killed.” In nations affected by war, 78 percent said that this was wrong.

icrc president peter
icrc president peter

Maurer observed that the closer people were to a conflict, the more they believed in the importance of respecting international humanitarian law.

He added that living far from the realities of warfare makes it easier for people to be disconnected than having to see horrible images from war all the time.

According to Maurer, the most important point of the survey results is that “we must not lose our empathy and become numb to human suffering.”

I’m Phil Dierking.

Lisa Schlein reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. ­­­­­George Grow was the editor.

Do you feel that torture is sometimes necessary to find helpful information in times of war? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

combatant – n. a person, group, or country that fights in a war or battle.

empathy – n. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions.

numb – adj. unable to think, feel, or react normally because of something that shocks or upsets you.

obtain – v. to gain or get.

survey – n. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information.

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