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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 06:16 GMT 07:16 UK
Heated debate over use of torture
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Hooded detainee in Abu Ghraib prison
The Abu Ghraib scandal has focused world attention on torture
Can the so-called "ticking bomb" defence - the argument that using some degree of torture may save lives - ever be a justification for mistreating suspects?

The findings of the opinion poll for the BBC World Service indicate that 59% of the world's citizens say "no": they are unwilling to compromise on the protection of human rights.

A sizeable majority of people around the world are opposed to torture even if its purpose is to elicit information that could save innocent lives from terrorist attack.

Nonetheless, almost as striking, is that almost one-third of those questioned - 29% - think that governments should be allowed to use some degree of torture in certain cases.

Overall, more than 27,000 people were questioned in 25 countries.

Differing attitudes

Support for using torture is generally greatest in those countries who see themselves as actively engaged in a struggle against political violence.

BBC poll results
43% of those questioned in Israel; 42% in Iraq; 36% of Americans; and 32% in India believe that some degree of torture should be allowed if it provides information that saves innocent lives.

In China too there is significant support for torture - 37% for, 49% against.

In Britain, by contrast, an overwhelming 72% opposes torture in any circumstances - a reflection of the strong antipathy towards such practices in Western Europe.

The Israeli figure is interesting since it conceals a stark difference in attitude between the country's Jewish majority and its minority of Arab citizens.

This in turn is a reflection of their obvious differences in attitude towards the prevailing security climate.

What is torture?

Of course, as so often in the debate on torture, there are clear definitional problems.

This opinion poll makes no effort to define the term.

How far can interrogation go before an investigator becomes a torturer? Where does pressure and coercion stop and torture begin?

It's a question that has been very much at the centre of the debate in the United States, as the country pursues what the Bush administration describes as a "global war on terror".

The controversy over rendition - the secret movement of suspects from one country to another, possibly to locations or jurisdictions where torture is practiced - has caused tensions between the United States and some of its key European allies.

Rearguard action

This is much more than a debate between idealists and pragmatists. It is a matter of practical day-to-day politics.

The man who could be the leading Republican contender for the White House in 2008, Senator John McCain, has led a strong rear-guard action against the Bush Administration to outlaw torture once and for all.

Man's back showing signs of bruises
In Iraq, claims of torture by police have become common
His efforts were prompted by the abuses against Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility and reports from other detention centres in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

This resulted in new legislation intended to ban torture and other forms of cruel or degrading treatment.

What was actually passed, though, is something of a compromise between the administration and its critics - a measure that human rights groups and lawyers say still leaves open the possibility of mistreatment.

As important as defining and outlawing specific practices, they say, is the need to ensure that there is legal oversight of the authorities' actions.

This is an area where there are no easy answers.

For many - a large majority, if this opinion poll's indications are correct - torture per se is abhorrent. There are simply no circumstances in which it can be justified.

But for a smaller, though significant section of the global population - more in some countries than others - some form of torture has a place, albeit in certain specific circumstances.

It's back to that ticking bomb again and the essential question: just how far should interrogators be allowed to go?

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27 Jul 05 |  Middle East

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