Americans’ attitudes towards torture have hardened over the past decade and a half, according to a new global survey of public views on war.

Nearly half (46%) of Americans polled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) think it is acceptable to torture captured enemy combatants “to obtain important military information”. And 33% believe that torture is a “part of war”.

Only Nigerians (70%) and Israelis (50%) were more comfortable than Americans with the idea of torturing enemy fighters.

 Views on torture
Image: ICRC

When the ICRC carried out its last People on War survey in 1999, 65% of Americans did not believe it was acceptable to torture captured enemy fighters.

For this year’s survey, conducted between June and September, the ICRC gauged the views of 17,000 people in 16 countries on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which set out how civilians and prisoners should be treated during times of conflict.

Countries surveyed included the permanent five (P5) members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Switzerland, as well as nations suffering conflict such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and South Sudan.

The findings suggest that people in war-ravaged countries were more likely to respond humanely to questions on the laws of war. For example, only 14% of Ukrainians and 16% of Afghans thought torture was “part of war".

Overall, more than a third (36%) of respondents believe that captured enemy fighters could be tortured. Just under half thought the practice was unacceptable, compared with two thirds in the 1999 survey.

"We all need to redraw a line in the sand: torture in any form is forbidden," ICRC President Peter Maurer said in a statement. "We demonize our enemies at our own peril. Even in war, everyone deserves to be treated humanely."

The research points to a rift between the P5 countries and the other nations surveyed over their views on international humanitarian law. 78% of people living in countries affected by war said it was wrong to attack enemy fighters in populated areas, knowing that civilians would be killed. In P5 countries and Switzerland, only half of respondents said it was wrong, and just 36% in the US.

 Survey 2
Image: ICRC

In addition, 26% of people in P5 countries thought depriving the civilian population of essentials like food, water and medicine to weaken the enemy was just “part of war”, compared with 14% in countries affected by conflict.

More than eight out of 10 of all those surveyed thought it was wrong to attack hospitals, ambulances and healthcare workers to weaken the enemy. In wartorn countries, this figure was 89% (100% in Yemen), 79% in P5 countries and Switzerland, and 76% in the United States.