24 June 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON WORLD PUBLIC OPINION ON TORTURE

 


While most of the world’s public rejected the use of torture, a substantial number of people made an exception when terrorists were involved, according to new survey data released by WorldPublicOpinion.org this morning.


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference intended to refocus attention on the question of torture in anticipation of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which will be celebrated on 26 June, and as part of this year’s sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were Steven Kull, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, and director of WorldPublicOpinion.org; Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International; and Craig Mokhiber, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


The survey from WorldPublicOpinion.org, a consortium of 22 research centres studying public opinion on international issues, polled 19,000 people in 19 nations on the acceptance of the use of torture and on its continuing prevalence worldwide.  Those polled were presented with two alternatives.  The first said the threat posed by terrorists was so great that countries should be allowed to use some degree of torture to gain information that saved lives.  The second said that clear rules against torture should be motivated because any use of torture was immoral and would weaken international human right standards against torture.


In 14 of the 19 nations polled, most people favoured an unequivocal prohibition against torture.  On average across all nations polled, 57 per cent of the public opted for unequivocal rules against torture.  Four nations –- India, Nigeria and Turkey with clear majorities and Thailand with a plurality -– favoured an exception for terrorists if innocent lives were at risk.


The data showed terrorism’s undeniable salience in the question of torture, Mr. Kull said.  When terrorism was taken out of the picture, public acceptance of torture dropped:  On average, only 9 per cent of these countries’ populations supported the general use of torture to get information in such circumstances.  In no country did more than 20 per cent of the population express support for the general use of torture.


In its analysis, the WorldPublicOpinion.org further compared its most recent results to a similar survey it had conducted in a BBC poll two years ago.  In July 2006, only India had had a plurality supporting the terrorist exception.  Since then, a number of countries had seen significant increases on the pro-torture survey questions, including India, Nigeria, South Korea, Turkey, Egypt and the United States.


Still, a number of other countries had seen increases in the percentage of their populations who supported categorical prohibitions against torture, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Mexico, China, Indonesia and Russia.


“What we found was that the countries that were going up had recently had terrorist attacks,” Mr. Kull said.  In contrast, in many countries where higher numbers were supporting prohibitions against torture, a terrorist attack had occurred before the July 2006 poll, but not since.  On balance, there was only a modest change favouring an exception for torture when terrorism was involved, he said.


The question was whether Governments were changing because their publics were accepting, or if the public was accepting because the Governments were probably torturing, he continued.  While there was no simple standard for how much countries used torture, the countries that showed a higher level of public acceptance of torture were roughly those in which it was more frequent.  Although it was hard to determine which comes first –- Government action or public support for torture –- the causal link was probably from Government action to public support.


“When Governments are perceived as departing from the norm [of prohibiting torture], the norm weakens and that carries over into the public,” he said.  “If anything, the public is a force that tends to exert an inhibiting effect on the State.”


Ms. Terlingen said the policies of the United States and the rhetoric of the war on terror had had a great effect on public acceptance of torture.


“The role played by the United States in undermining the universal prohibition against torture cannot be underestimated,” she said.   Russia, China, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Algeria and Yemen had used the rhetoric of the war on terror to justify or intensify already existing patterns of repression.  Countries around the world had pushed back during fact-finding missions by the Special Rapporteur on Torture, asking why they were being criticized when the United States was practicing torture.


She also said that, while nobody talked about reintroducing slavery or genocide, which were subject to the same absolute prohibition as torture in international law, it was a different matter when it came to torture.  The Human Rights Council in Geneva had recently adopted a consensus resolution reaffirming the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and 145 of 192 of countries were party to the Torture Convention.  But, “against the background of that strong international framework, it’s really shocking to see that only half of all those interviewed in the poll in 19 countries -– that is, 57 per cent –- agree that all torture should be prohibited”, she said. 


She further noted the surprising contrast between India and China, in which 66 and 61 per cent of the populations respectively oppose torture in all circumstances, and the United States, where only 53 per cent did.  At 31 per cent, the United States also had a high number of people who accept limited torture for terrorists to save lives.


Turning to Amnesty Internationals’ recent study “State of denial:   Europe’s role in rendition and secret detention”, she said European countries refused to admit or investigate violations carried out by their nationals on their territory.  There was growing evidence of Europe’s partnership in the United States’ rendition programme.  That reinforced the need for measures to prevent further complicity.


“Their populations must not be complicit in accepting measures that facilitate torture and other ill treatment,” she said, calling on all citizens of


the world to push their Governments to condemn all forms of torture and end any complicity and hold those responsible to account.


A number of findings from previous surveys conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org that addressed public perceptions of other tenets of the Human Rights Declaration were also introduced.  Information that emerged from the survey data included:  strong global support for racial equality; very strong global support for the media and freedom of expression; and little tolerance for limits on freedoms related to the Internet.  The strongest consensus globally was for women’s full equality.  There was also strong support for action by Governments and the United Nations in each instance.


“It very clearly affirms what we’ve been arguing for 60 years, which is the universality of human rights,” Mr. Mokhiber said.  Together, the surveys revealed strongly held social values that seemed to cut across region, religion and geography, he said, and “any of the tired old notions that come up that this is somehow a concept limited to one part of the world has been discounted and this survey helps to affirm that”.


Responding to a question about censuring human rights violations of United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and drawing a link between the other public opinion surveys being discussed, he also stressed the dichotomy between the widespread and extreme majorities that supported women’s human rights that were seen in one survey, and signs of a willingness to allow exceptions for torture visible in another survey.


“If the answer to the human rights of women is the moment you call them a terrorist, then it’s ok to commit these atrocious acts against them, then the entire human rights framework breaks down,” he said.


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For information media • not an official record