NASHVILLE — The U.N. human rights chief on Wednesday said he's "amazed" by President Donald Trump's support of torture in interrogations, calling the prospect of reviving the practice in the United States "profoundly unsettling."
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called torture "repugnant" and "useless" in a speech to Vanderbilt University Law School students in Tennessee.
White House officials declined to respond and cited Trump's previous statements that he'd defer to Defence Secretary James Mattis, who has said he opposes torture.
Zeid contended that the embrace of torture often appears to stem from anger and fear, and he directed criticisms at populist leaders like Trump.
"I have been amazed by the President's openly voiced personal support for torture," Zeid said. "The prospect that torture, or some airbrushed version of it, could be revived in this country, potentially in response to some future terrorist outrage, is profoundly unsettling."
Before the election, Zeid said Trump would be "dangerous from an international point of view" and said he's among the "populists and demagogues" whose tactics of communication resemble Islamic State group-style propaganda.
"Populists are using words to paint images of hordes of rapacious outsiders stealing jobs, engaged in crime and sowing terror; stories with clear villains and easy fixes," Zeid said Wednesday. "These are dangerous fabrications."
The president has said he believes torture works.
In an interview with ABC News in January, Trump said he would wage war against Islamic State militants with the goal of keeping the U.S. safe. Asked about the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, Trump cited the extremist group's atrocities against Christians and others and said: "We have to fight fire with fire."
During the discussion at Vanderbilt's law school, Zeid also said the latest "barbaric" chemical attack that killed dozens of people in Syria highlights the significance of his push to investigate international crimes committed in the country.
"When you have these outrages and attacks on civilians, in the end, they demand justice," Zeid told The Associated Press. "And we know that it's unlikely for there to be a durable peace in Syria unless those who have committed these outrages, these horrific crimes, are brought to justice."
Zeid's cousin, King Abdullah II of Jordan, met with Trump in Washington on Wednesday. Trump laid blame for the attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad, but did not say what the U.S. might do in response.
This story has been corrected to show that Zeid said he was "amazed" by Trump's statements regarding torture, not that the statements were "amazing."
Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press