When Sorry Is Not Enough (or Makes Things Worse)

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Last week President Obama apologized to the head of the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders whose staff and patients were killed and injured during an American airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The apology came after sustained calls for the United States to confirm that a mistake had been made in targeting the hospital, and amid claims that the precise coordinates of the hospital had been made known to the US military in advance of targeting. Doctors Without Borders charges that the bombing constituted a war crime and demanded an independent investigation. The organization refused to accept the President’s apology and maintains that the only acceptable way forward in the aftermath of this atrocity is US commitment to an independent, international investigation that would address both the planning and execution of the bombing.

We live in an age of apology mania, from “sorry day” in Australia, to acknowledgment of the harms of the Irish Famine to slow recognition (if inadequate apology) of the comfort women harmed by Japan during the Second World War. This latest apology again brings us into the murky hinterlands of official apologies for atrocity and past harms. It exposes the complexity and inconsistency of expressions of regret by states. It shows how the withholding of official apology can exacerbate the experience of harm for victims and underscores the political dynamics resulting from deeming certain victims “undeserving” of apology.

Official apologies are not new, and they also expose the very mixed feelings of victims about the value of apology. In many contexts, apologies are lauded for acknowledging responsibility and bringing transparency to state violations of human rights. Less well understood are their negative effects. Recent work by my colleagues in Belfast, Patricia Lundy and Bill Rolston, amply demonstrates that official apologies frequently function as a smokescreen on accountability and the acceptance of responsibility. The publicity effect can operate as a shield for states and the institutions most responsibility for serious violations of human right and humanitarian law. Counterintitutively apologies deflect scrutiny, avoid effective remedy, and silence victims in unexpected ways.

The problem with the grand gesture is exactly the way in which it takes our gaze away from the precise experience of the harms that have been caused, and the sequence of events and decisions led to their execution. Instead we are drawn to the narcissism of those who are responsible for the harm. Apologies can be deceptively easy — wrong footing victims in unexpected ways, making the dialogue appear as if it ought to be about reconciliation, understanding, and the authenticity of both the perpetrator, and the victim in dialogue. Laudable as these goals may be, they may simply operate to serve the self-interest of those who have caused the harm, avoiding the full force of the law (national or international) and implying a form of equalization in a relationship that is profoundly unequal. This is not to dismiss the parallel claim that apology can restore dignity and make acknowledgment an important part of the enforcement of human rights claims. But, the decision by Doctors Without Borders to withhold its acceptance of the apology is a strong signal that official apology, even by a contrite and well-meaning Head of State is not sufficient to overcome the basic demands of investigation, prosecution (as appropriate), and reparation in the aftermath of atrocity. The refusal exercises its own symbolic power by denying legitimacy and refusing repair until certain core legal obligations are addressed and delivered. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).