- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
A decade has a passed since the American public first learned of the horrific abuses committed by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Shortly after that, major newspapers caught wind of the George W. Bush administration’s now infamous torture memos — a set of legal arguments that tacitly authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. Two years later, in 2006, Bush publicly acknowledged the existence of CIA black sites.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Americans are cynical about the prospect of being tortured. Indeed, one-third of them believe they may be subjected to torture if taken into custody by U.S. authorities, according to a worldwide poll commissioned by Amnesty International. Amnesty surveyed 21,221 people in 21 countries to determine global attitudes on torture, finding that 44 percent of respondents worldwide “fear torture if taken into custody.”
The breakdown of responses by country is below:
Of course, public attitudes toward torture don’t necessarily match the actual prevalence of torture in a given country. In the United States, only one-third of respondents reported “feeling safe” from the threat of torture — fewer than in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, even China. While there are many well-documented cases of U.S. military personnel torturing or abusing both foreign and American detainees, torture of U.S. citizens is less prevalent. Public perception of the risk of torture is likely driven by media coverage surrounding high-profile incidents of abuse.
Take China, for example: Until late 2013 — when Chinese officials announced a series of human rights-related reforms — forced labor camps and extralegal detention centers called black jails were widespread. While torture is illegal in China, human rights groups believe that authorities use the tool against both criminal suspects and political detainees.
Despite China’s bleak human rights record, the vast majority — 72 percent — of Chinese respondents told Amnesty International that they personally felt safe from torture. But perhaps even more telling is that 74 percent of Chinese respondents said that torture is a “necessary and acceptable” way of gaining information, compared to 45 percent of Americans.
Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, argues that those figures are shaped by the government’s near total control of public information. “Chinese citizens are essentially being told a one-sided story by the government when it comes to the use of torture,” she told Foreign Policy. Most citizens there simply aren’t aware of how prevalent prisoner abuse is, she said. “Many statistics on the treatment of individuals in detention, including deaths in prisons, are classified as state secrets and leaking them can carry lengthy terms of punishment.”
The fact that those most at risk of torture are ethnic and religious minorities, such as Muslim Uighurs and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as political dissidents, plays into the familiar narrative that authorities are protecting ordinary citizens from radicalism or terrorism.
“China, like many other governments across the world, continues to use the threat of terrorism in order to justify actions that are illegal under international law,” Rife said. “The government’s message of fighting the three evil forces — separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism — is emphasized time and time again and used as a justification for intensified crackdowns.”
Those distinctions undoubtedly shape public opinion about both the necessity of torture and the general public’s perceived vulnerability to it.
By contrast, consider Brazil and Mexico, where torture by state security forces have been well-documented by both human rights groups and journalists over decades. Only 10 percent of Mexican respondents and 4 percent of Brazilian respondents said that torture is sometimes justified.
Read the full report here.