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The Case for Regular Political Apology
By Allison Don and Per-Erik Milam
Starting in the 1870s, more than 150,000 indigenous children in Canada were forcibly removed from their families and communities and placed in Indian Residential Schools with the goal of isolating them from their home cultures and assimilating them into the dominant culture. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has labelled the program a “cultural genocide.” Students were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and at least 3,200 died while attending the schools. In 2008 and 2017 respectively, Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau apologised to the former students of the Indian Residential Schools on behalf of the Canadian government. The apologies were coupled with other measures aimed at reconciliation, including the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which established a recovery fund of over $3 billion for former students.
Many nations, like Canada, have perpetrated grave injustices against foreign peoples, internal populations, and other vulnerable groups. Many of these nations still exist in relevantly similar forms and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Because they persist with sufficiently stable political structures, these national governments are able to take responsibility for their misconduct, take significant action to repair the damage they have caused, and restore trust between themselves and victimised groups. One way to do so is to publicly apologise for their past misconduct and begin to make amends.
Indeed, many nations have done exactly that. This is laudable and should continue, but we believe that further action is called for. We suggest that some national governments should designate a regular day of apology on which the head of state publicly apologises for a different past instance of serious misconduct by the state. (To be clear: the suggestion is that the state will apologise for a different past injustice, not the same past injustice, each year.) Our reasoning is fairly straightforward. Personal apology is a practice with recognised norms and benefits that’s familiar from our personal lives. Political apology is an increasingly popular part of a nation’s domestic and international policy toolkit and can be an effective reparative measure. Finally, regular political apology offers its own benefits and addresses some of the obstacles that undermine occasional political apologies.
Our world has been shaped by the injustices of the past. States committed some of these injustices knowingly, others negligently, still others recklessly. Our global social, political, and economic landscape is the legacy of centuries of wrongdoing by various states, against both foreign peoples and vulnerable internal populations. Such injustices include:
- Unjust war and hostile occupation
- Religious persecution
- Material exploitation
- Economic and political interference
There may be reasonable disagreements about how to populate these categories, but most of us could generate a long list for each type, from the Spanish encomiendo system in Latin America to the Armenian genocide to the ongoing mistreatment of the Rohingya. Apology is an appropriate response to such injustices and, while apologies have been made for many injustices like these, there remain many more for which no apology has not been offered.
Apologies do important work in our interpersonal lives and political apologies can play the same role. They can acknowledge that the injustice occurred, that it was inappropriate, and that the state was responsible in some way for the act. They can also express remorse and the intention not act in a similarly unjust way in the future.
Political apologies are an increasingly common reparative measure. Recent research has identified over 250 political apologies since World War II. These apologies are part of a broader practice of institutional responsibility that parallels our interpersonal practice. A state commits a moral offence, like genocide or religious persecution. Individuals, groups, and other nations blame the offending state and express that blame through public criticism, official decrees, and collective action (e.g. boycotting New World sugar or divesting from apartheid South Africa). The head of state apologises on behalf of the offending state for its offense (e.g. Kevin Rudd’s apology to Australia’s indigenous “stolen generations”). And the offending state reconciles with victimised groups by means of transitional justice processes (e.g. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions).
Of course, the circumstances of a political apology are more likely to require measures unnecessary for interpersonal apologies. The injustice may have been severe. The state may have refused or neglected to acknowledge their misconduct for many years. And victims may reasonably suspect ulterior motives for apology. These factors make it harder for a political apology to demonstrate sincere commitment to meaningful and lasting change. For these and other reasons, an effective political apology will often require both a spoken apology and a concrete attempt to make amends and repair the effects of the injustice, like the recovery fund established by Canada’s IRSSA.
We therefore propose that a practice of regular political apology include both a spoken apology and a fitting supplementary reparative policy developed in collaboration with victim groups, policy makers, and administration officials.
While political apologies face additional obstacles, they can also do things that interpersonal apologies cannot:
- Political apologies can be done—and usually ought to be done—in collaboration with the victims. For example, an apology for interference in another nation’s democratic elections may require planning the apology in consultation with officials of the current government and victims of the problematic regime.
- Political apologies can give voice to silenced victims with special force because they speak with the authority of a legitimate state representative. For example, it would be one thing for a former head of state to publicly express their regret for a wrongful action or unjust policy, but something more for a presiding head of state to apologise for it on behalf of the nation.
- Political apologies can improve the health of the broader political community in addition to the relationship between the state and the victimised group. For example, they can model a valuable form of political discourse and foster civic trust by demonstrating to other victimised groups that the government is open to considering and acting on legitimate grievances.
Nonetheless, political apologies are not a silver bullet. Their value is contingent and they must avoid various obstacles in order to be effective. One of the biggest obstacles to effective political apology by an offending state is the defensiveness of its citizens. A large portion of the population may object to apologising for any particular offence. A political apology requires citizens to critically examine their nation’s history in a way that may damage or conflict with their present view of themselves as citizens of that nation. As such, political apologies may be—and often have been—seen by many as unduly critical, unpatriotic or even shameful, even by a citizenry opposed in principle to the kinds of injustices at issue.
We believe that a practice of regular political apology, including coordinated policy measures planned in collaboration with representatives of victimised groups, can help to overcome these challenges and offer benefits beyond those provided by occasional political apologies.
Our proposal might seem odd, but the practice of regular apology actually has many precedents and would be familiar to hundreds of millions of people throughout history, including those who celebrate Yom Kippur or participate in Confession.
Regularity can enhance the value of an apology and help to overcome defensiveness and other challenges faced by ad hoc or occasional political apologies. A practice of regular political apology has the benefits of being predictable and promoting a societal norm of apology.
Predictability. Regularity creates an annual policy opportunity and a deadline for implementation. Interest groups benefit from predictable opportunities to access their government. In the United States, for example, the annual budget schedule gives Americans affected by the budget—e.g. veterans, farmers, state and local governments—a predictable opportunity to express their interests to Congress. Similarly, a policy of regular political apology would give victimised groups a predictable opportunity to organise themselves and advocate for their own apology. Rather than encouraging a top down system of political apology managed by politicians, regular apology could actually facilitate grassroots organising and advocacy by victims themselves.
Transformative Power. With respect to the central challenge of defensiveness, a practice of regular political apology could make it easier for political apologies to perform their potential transformative role. Regular apology can influence the political norms of a society and its citizens, and political relationships can come to be governed by norms of apology just as interpersonal relationships are. A regular practice would normalise the constituent parts of an apology, namely, admitting failure and acknowledging fault. And, by doing so, the practice could combat the defensiveness in response to moral criticism that we sometimes see in political leaders and opposition groups. Moreover, because regularity binds a government to making an apology, it demonstrates a clear commitment to principles of justice and equality, which may facilitate public pride in that commitment.
We have proposed that regular political apology be adopted as public policy. We think that regular political apology would be valuable if implemented properly and that it can be implemented properly, but this will not be an easy task. Political apologies face other obstacles than defensiveness and regularity raises challenges of its own.
Political apologies risk being instrumentalised by cynical offenders—or perceived as such by victims. An apology may be—or be seen as—an attempt to lower the price tag on other forms of compensation or reparation. Moreover, even sincere and well-intentioned political apologies risk whitewashing state injustices. No apology can tell the whole story of an offence, but what we choose to emphasise and omit can undermine its effect by misrepresenting the details, consequences, or significance of the event. An apology can also cement a particular narrative of an injustice that future generations may have trouble dislodging. Finally, a state would have to ensure that regularity does not undermine the force of the practice or encourage invidious comparisons between the recipient groups from year to year.
In the end, political apologies can fail and a practice of regular political apology could also fail. However, even its failure would say a lot. It would suggest that the state is unwilling or incapable of doing what it takes to maintain the laudable practice of apologising and making amends for its misconduct.
 See Danielle Celermajer The Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies (2009) and Mihaela Mihai “When the State Says ‘Sorry’: State Apologies as Exemplary Judgments.” Journal of Political Philosophy 21.2 (2013).
 See Mihai “When the State Says ‘Sorry’” and Michael Cunningham “The Apology in Democracies: Reflections on the Challenges of Competing Goods, Citizenship, Nationalism and Pluralist Politics” in The Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies (2014).
 See Celermajer’s The Sins of the Nation, Mihai’s “When the State Says ‘Sorry,’” and Alice MacLachlan’s “Beyond the Ideal Political Apology” in On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.