In advance of her international workshop, The Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies, Mihaela Mihai gives some background on state apologies for past injustices. What are state apologies? What are the validity conditions for such apologies? And what role do they play in democratic societies?
"It is estimated that, between the 16th and the 19th Centuries, Europeans traded approximately 8 million slaves out of Africa. Out of this number, 2.5 million were transported on British ships. On the occasion of the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, apologies by the Anglican Church, by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and by the City of Liverpool made it impossible for then Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep silent. In an article published in the New Nation in November 2006, and during subsequent commemoratory events at the Elmina castle in Ghana, Blair controversially expressed “deep sorrow” over Britain’s participation in the slave trade, a practice he equated with a crime against humanity.
Apologies by public figures are not exceptional today. The last few decades have witnessed a sharp rise in the number of public and political apologies, so much so that some scholars believe we are living in an “age of apology”. A gesture formerly considered a sign of weakness, has grown to represent moral strength and a crucial step towards potential reconciliation. Individuals, but more often states, churches, the judiciary, the medical profession and universities publicly issue apologies to those they have wronged in the past. Crimes ranging from personal betrayals and insults all the way to enslavement, land displacement, violations of treaties or international law, systemic discrimination, wartime crimes, cultural disruptions, or political seizures constitute reasons for public expressions of regret.
An international workshop examining state apologies for past injustices will takeplace at the University of York on the 6th of June. It comes at the end of a project entitled When the State Says "Sorry": An Interdisciplinary and Comparative Approach to Political Apologies, sponsored by the Government of Canada. The invited speakers will engage the following questions: What are state apologies? What are the validity conditions for such apologies? And what role do they play in democratic societies?
In addressing the issue of state apologies, we can speak of three contexts: domestic, international and postcolonial.
In the domestic realm, Canada’s apology and compensation to Canadians of Chinese origin for the infamous “Chinese Head Tax“ law and US’s apology and compensation for American citizens of Japanese descent for the witch hunt they were subjected to during WW II are relevant examples.
In the international realm we could discuss Japan’s “sorry” for the abuse of Korean and Chinese “comfort women” and Belgium’s expression of regret for not having intervened to prevent the genocide in Rwanda.
Finally, in the postcolonial context, Australia’s and Canada’s apologies to their Aboriginal communities for forced assimilation policies, Queen Elizabeth’s declaration of “sorrow” for Britain’s treatment of the Maori community, and Guatemala’s apology to a Mayan community constitute important illustrations.
In interpersonal apologies an individual acknowledges and promises to redress offences committed against another individual. While there is great variation among authors on the number and exact role that different elements play within an apology, there is a growing consensus that an authentic apology implies: an acknowledgement that the incident in question did in fact occur and that it was inappropriate; a recognition of responsibility for the act; the expression of an attitude of regret and a feeling of remorse; and the declaration of an intention to refrain from similar acts in the future.
When applied to collective apologies for harms and wrongs featuring multiple perpetrators – oftentimes committed a long time ago – most of the criteria for valid interpersonal apologies don’t hold. Consequently, many have argued against the very idea of collective apologies, and especially against the idea of collective apologies for injustices that took place in the distant past.
Those who want to recuperate the idea of a state apology for democratic politics argue that we should give up the interpersonal model and think of collective apologies politically. Thus, many have argued that it is normatively sound to ascribe responsibility to collectives or institutions as continuous in time and as transcending the particular individuals constituting them at a certain moment.
In addition, it has been pointed out that collectives are responsible for reproducing the culture that made it possible for atrocities to go on uncontested for a long time. Therefore, collective responsibility requires that political representatives acknowledge the fact that an injustice has been committed, mark discontinuity with the discriminatory practices of the past, and commit themselves to non-repetition and redress.
At this point, a caveat is necessary: collective responsibility must be conceptually distinguished from collective guilt. For example, a present government who has not committed any wrongs, can still take responsibility by acknowledging that wrongs have been committed against a certain group or person in the past, that it was “our culture” that enabled the abuses, that the abuses have repercussions in the present, and that they will not be allowed to happen again. A pledge to revise the very foundations on which the relations between various groups are established within the polity, as well as material compensations for the losses incurred by the victims give concreteness to the apology.
In this sense, it can be safely said that collective apologies have both a symbolic function (recognition of the offended group as worthy of respect) and a utility function (the apology can be followed by reparations and might lead to better inter-group relations).