It’s Never Too Late to Say “I’m Sorry”: Sovereign Apologies Over the Years

Jan. 6, 2021, was a dark day for the United States, the culmination of four years of hateful rhetoric and policies. Now, the Biden-Harris administration is faced with myriad decisions about how to deal with the policies and practices of the Trump administration, including those that have caused demonstrable harm both at home and abroad. The new administration has to decide how to address, and potentially redress, the political and other damage inflicted by the Trump administration as well as unite a divided nation.

Might an apology be an appropriate response in certain contexts? This article collects examples throughout history in which the representatives of sovereign States have apologized for their nation’s prior conduct, domestically or internationally, and the impact these apologies have had on survivor communities and the State’s international standing. As many of our examples reveal, apologies can serve important foreign and domestic policy interests, but we emphasize that there are independent moral imperatives to apologize and express remorse for human rights abuses that should motivate States to consider following suit.

A Brief History of Sovereign Apologies

An unprecedented apology last year prompted this research: On June 3, 2020, King Philippe of Belgium issued the first ever public apology to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) regarding Belgium’s brutal and decades-long colonial administration. This apology came 60 years after the DRC’s independence and 112 years after Belgium first colonized the territory then known only as the Congo. By the late 1890s, King Leopold of Belgium had established an extraordinarily inhumane system of slave labor that stripped Congo of its natural resources for European use. Murders and brutal mutilations were such common occurrences in the colony that some historians, Adam Hochschild for one, estimate that Belgian rule resulted in the death of about 10 million Congolese. Acknowledging this shameful past, King Phillippe in his apology stated, “I want to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of which is revived today by discriminations that are still too present in our societies.” This public apology generations later marked an enormous step in recognizing Belgium’s direct role in committing years of human rights abuses by acknowledging its colonial past as well as the enduring impact on present racial inequities.

State-issued apologies are not a new phenomenon. With just a couple of sentences expressing “our deepest regrets” and “sincerest apologies,” States around the world have apologized for some of the worst human rights violations in history. A few more examples: In 1998, President Bill Clinton apologized for the failure of the United States to do more to prevent the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the death of 800,000 people in just 100 days, and in 2016 President Tsai Ing-wen apologized to Taiwan’s indigenous communities for centuries of State-instituted mistreatment and discrimination. In the case of Clinton’s 1998 remarks, he apologized to the Rwandan community on behalf of the United States. In the case of Tsai Ing-wen, it was a national apology — one intended for his compatriots. Similarly, in January 2021, Ireland finally apologized for the pain caused by the so-called “mother and child homes,” where unwed women and girls were sent to give birth, experimented on in unethical vaccine trials, physically and psychologically mistreated, and then pressured to give up their newborns for adoption.

These statements are collective apologies — “an apology made on behalf of and directed to identifiable communities.” However, some are examples of a government apologizing for its depredations or failures abroad whereas others involve a government apologizing to its own populace for prior abusive behavior. While the goals of State-issued apologies vary substantially, the latter type of apologies may be part of a larger national truth-telling or reconciliation process involving all implicated communities and aimed at rebuilding trust between formerly opposing communities and charting a new sovereign course. Or, they may be sought by lawyers on behalf of clients who experienced injustice or arbitrary action, as discussed by Gene Fidell in this piece arguing for a new section in the Federal Register for publicizing such apologies. Indeed, a process of national reconciliation is virtually impossible to undertake without an apology and a clear acknowledgement of a country’s past policies and practices. Apologies, therefore, have been used for decades by States in order to confront their past and move towards a more inclusive and equitable future.

The Function(s) of Sovereign Apologies

Official collective apologies can seek to provide public accountability, advance reconciliation, and guarantee non-recurrence of harmful policies. By atoning for a painful chapter of a nation’s past, it is hoped that such societies may become less inclined to commit the same human rights violations in the future. Even without judicial action, leaders and governments are, to a certain extent, held accountable by public expressions of regret and responsibility. This can introduce the possibility of new social and political growth, with the eventual goal of reversing oppressive policies in some cases or providing reparations in others. When done correctly, Edwin Battistella argues, “a national apology asserts changed values, condemns past behaviour, and commits to different, better actions in the future. And it can bring about a reconciliation between those harmed and the nation that caused the harm.”

Apologies are critical in acknowledging the painful truth of a country’s history as well as its present shortcomings — yet to many, an apology signifies a sign of weakness. There is no question that apologies are humbling events that expose the deepest of vulnerabilities. At the same time, the willingness to engage in self-exploration, acknowledge one’s errors, and make amends is also a sign of confidence, wisdom, and strength as well as an expression of respect for those harmed by a prior course of conduct.

Assessing Sovereign Apologies

Public apologies may carry an incredible amount of weight if they are perceived to be genuine and heartfelt. But how does one measure the genuineness of an apology, particularly on the part of victims? The question is inescapable, especially when investigating the effectiveness of public apologies. Certain commonly repeated phrases such as “our sincerest regrets” and “we respectfully offer our apologies” can seem trivial in comparison to the magnitude of the underlying crimes. Especially in the context of apologies for human rights atrocities — which often cost the lives of thousands of innocent individuals — a simple apology seems to miss the mark. And analytically, the genuineness of these apologies matters because it demonstrates a commitment to not only atone for past harms but also to transform a country’s future.

Measuring genuineness is not easy — no present metric exists that allows for audiences to quantify a human apology, no less a sovereign one. For the purposes of this analysis, we decided to focus on several components: responses from the target audience of survivors or their descendants, the circumstances (time, place, and manner) in which the apology was offered as well as the precise words used, and the existence of concrete local or national efforts to combat, reverse, and rectify years of mistreatment. In terms of content, it is clear that a genuine apology requires a full accounting of what actually happened and why, a sense of empathy for what the victim experienced (including long-term impacts), the taking of responsibility for one’s conduct, and the making of amends. Apologies that address only some of these components are often deemed incomplete.

First: the audience. Observing how victims choose to understand, and either accept or reject, apologies on behalf of a government emerges as an important indicator of genuineness. The opinion that should matter most in evaluating a sovereign apology is that of the communities of survivors who lived through, or bore the consequences of, the human rights abuses at issue. Apologies might legitimize the government that is issuing them, but still not fully acknowledge the feelings of loss and betrayal thousands of innocent people carry decades — sometimes centuries — after human rights abuses were committed. Without the acceptance of the targeted community, the apology may gain the issuer kudos from others, but will be worthless from the perspective of transforming internal political dynamics. On the other hand, a genuine apology that gains acceptance from the community of survivors can be more impactful than material gestures. Indeed, survivors often seek apologies as they can be a strong indicator of a state’s obligation to provide redress to victims, potentially including future material measures.

When Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 2008, several members of these communities experienced this moment as a real breakthrough. Aunty Lorain Peeters, a member of the Stolen Generation — aboriginal children who were kidnapped from their families and raised in white homes — recalled the day of the apology as “a day I will never, ever forget in my life because we were being acknowledged as a group of people.” For Peeters, as well as many others, this apology marked the possibility of new policies aimed at achieving recognition and fairer treatment for indigenous communities by the Australian government. With such a positive reception within the targeted audience as the metric, Rudd’s apology carries indicia of authenticity. (That said, not every member of the Stolen Generation likely received the apology with open arms, and criticism of stalled progress on reform and reconciliation continues to this day.)

Second: the particulars. Factors such as timing and the vocabulary deployed exert a significant impact on the perceived genuineness of an apology. Many of the apologies cataloged below were issued years, even decades, after the events in question. Survivors often continue to press for an apology even after compensation is paid or after other avenues for legal redress have been foreclosed by the passage of time. There is no question that sovereign apologies become easier over time, especially when the particular individuals involved in the underlying harms may have passed away or no longer hold positions of power. And yet, some sovereigns resist apologizing even long after officially abandoning harmful policies..

The wording of an apology matters, too. While collecting accounts of State-issued apologies, it became clear that some apologies do not actually include the words “we are sorry.” Or, even if they do, they also include an implicit (or even explicit) defense to — or justification for — the allegations. By merely acknowledging what happened, certain attempts at apology touch only the surface of a history of violence without reflecting true regret or offering any promise of non-repetition.

Take South Africa’s Frederik W. de Klerk, for example. In 1992, 42 years after apartheid began, and speaking as the last apartheid president in South Africa, de Klerk apologized in the town of Winburg for “clinging to a dream of separated nation-states, when it was already clear that it could not succeed sufficiently.” Four years later, de Klerk issued a separate apology before the nation’s truth commission “for the pain and suffering caused by the disgraced system of racial separation.” In the same breath, however, de Klerk went on to deny responsibility for some of the multifaceted abuses that were integral parts of the apartheid — including assassinations, torture, and other human rights abuses — and which he helped to create and support as former minister of education and then president. Such half-hearted apologies are unlikely to satisfy victims of atrocities, nor do they signal to national communities a serious commitment to reform and non-recurrence.

Third: The impact. Does the apology come with measures of repair, including reparations, reforms, and memorialization? The tangible changes the follow a public apology can indicate whether the apology was issued for political expediency rather than as a means to usher in a new period of equity and transformative justice.

Returning to the example of Australia, the government has clearly fallen short so far in this regard. There is no question that the apology Rudd offered in 2008 was a momentous occasion for victims of Australia’s Stolen Generation, who interpreted it as genuine and heartfelt. That year, the government established the Closing the Gap program with the goal of decreasing the inequalities experienced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. However, 12 years later, the “targets are falling short in child mortality, school attendance, literacy and numeracy, employment and life expectancy.” By 2018, a decade after Rudd’s apology, Australia had little to show for its supposed commitment to repairing the Stolen Generation. Both the Rudd government and its successors have yet to successfully set up a reparations scheme — the step that to many victims would indicate a genuine commitment to addressing the harm propagated by the government, more so than the public apology. However, the lack of concrete policy changes following Rudd’s apology, especially the failure to meet so many imperative Closing-the-Gap goals, leaves many with the impression that the apology was more of a political stunt to provide artificial closure than a bona fide process to usher in transformative change.

The consequences of a sovereign apology can also depend on whether the statement carries legal effect. Under some circumstances, official acknowledgements of regret and, in particular, statements that accept responsibility for past harms may establish legal responsibility as well as moral culpability. In some cases, this effect can open the way for multilateral negotiations, litigation, and other forms of dispute resolution. For this reason, States may resist issuing apologies because such official acknowledgement of responsibility can shape future legal obligations and generate claims that there is a legal responsibility to compensate the “victim” (be it a collective or State) for damages caused. Even more broadly, Richard Bilder argues that “apologies — ones that genuinely and unequivocally recognize the existence of particular rules — and that perhaps also meet other criteria of authenticity” could contribute to the formation or development of customary international law. The full array of possible legal consequences of sovereign apologies is beyond the scope of this article, but it should be noted that these legal impacts may shape the actions of both sovereigns issuing apologies and the audience(s) of those apologies.

In short, apologies are significant, but standing alone, they may not be enough to satisfy survivors, establish responsibility and historical truth, signal genuine policy change, or produce legal effects. They initiate a process by which nations can come face-to-face with their pasts with the hope of never repeating the same mistakes. An apology is a way for sovereigns to work toward changing legislative policy and holding leaders accountable. Once this process of constructive reflection has commenced, the issue then becomes one of genuineness and effectiveness. Apologies serve as important starting points, but their weight becomes insignificant if they are not genuine and do not lead to permanent and transformative change.

We have compiled below an inexhaustive list of apologies for significant human rights atrocities. Most were issued by the sovereign itself or a state representative, but we have also included a couple from non-state armed groups, former government officials, and even corporations involved in implementing state policy. Additional compilations can be found here. These are roughly in chronological order, although we offer a deeper dive into the multiple apologies issued by the Vatican, the Catholic Church, and representatives thereof for a range of offenses, and Japan for its World War II war crimes/crimes against humanity. Our hope is that the Biden administration might find inspiration in these examples of States that have apologized for their conduct at home or abroad, particularly following a political transition. Readers are welcomed to alert us to any examples that we are missing so that we may update the list accordingly.

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TIMELINE OF APOLOGIES FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ATROCITIES BY SOVEREIGNS, GOVERNMENT LEADERS, AND OTHER RESPONSIBLE INSTITUTIONS

 December 7, 1970: German Chancellor Willy Brandt memorialized his ‘silent apology’ on behalf of Germany at a Warsaw ghetto.

February 19, 1976: U.S. President Gerald Ford revokes President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and says the internment of Japanese Americans was “wrong.”

March 10, 1986: Mayor Wilson Goode of Philadelphia apologizes for the bombing of the MOVE organization that left 11 dead and 250 citizens homeless.

July 3, 1988: U.S. President Ronald Reagan sends a note to the Iranian government expressing “deep regret” over the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet that killed all 290 persons aboard.

September 22, 1988: Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issues an apology to Japanese Canadians for their treatment during WWII.

November 23, 1988: Ex-president of South Korea Chun Doo Hwan apologizes to his compatriots for abuses committed during his 8-year tenure, including the massive corruption that took place under his leadership as well as the government suppression of a revolt in the southwest province Gwangju, which killed hundreds of civilians.

October 10, 1992: Former South African President Frederik W. de Klerk first apologizes for apartheid, marking the first instance of a white South African leader expressing public regret for the policies.

November 20, 1992: Russian President Boris Yeltsin apologizes to South Korea for the downing of a Korean Air Lines jet with 269 people aboard.

October 1, 1993: U.S. President Bill Clinton issues a letter, following the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

October 12, 1993: Russian President Boris Yeltsin apologizes for the internment of 600,000 Japanese POWs after WWII, calling their treatment “inhuman.”

August 2, 1994: German President Roman Herzog asks the Polish people for forgiveness for the “pain and suffering inflicted on Poland a million times” during WWII. President Herzog also mourned the dead of the Warsaw Uprising.

May 4, 1994: Florida allocates $2.1M to survivors of the 1923 attack on the Black town of Rosewood and establishes a college scholarship for descendants of victims. The Florida governor apologizes for not preventing the violence or bringing the perpetrators to justice.

February 28, 1995: Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui apologizes for the massacre of thousands of civilians during the White Terror, almost 50 years after the incident.

March 1, 1995: Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas apologizes to Israel for Lithuania’s role in supporting the Nazi Holocaust.

July 17, 1995: French President Jacques Chirac apologizes for the role France played in deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during WWII.

November 2, 1995: Queen Elizabeth II signs the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims Settlement Bill offering a royal apology to Tainui Maori tribal confederation for land the British colonial government seized in the mid-19th century. In addition to the formal apology, the settlement included the return of land and cash payments; the total value of the settlement is assessed at $170 million.

August 22, 1996: Former South African President de Klerk issues apology to the nation’s truth commission for the system of apartheid in South Africa.

May 16, 1997: U.S. President Bill Clinton apologizes for the Tuskegee Experiments.

March 25, 1998: U.S. President Bill Clinton apologizes for U.S. failure to take action in the Rwandan genocide.

March 10, 1999: U.S. President Bill Clinton apologizes for U.S.-backing of right-wing governments in Guatemala that killed tens of thousands of rebels and Mayan Indians in a 36-year civil war.

March 14, 1999: Guatemala’s former leftist rebel army apologizes for abuses committed during the country’s civil war.

July 17, 2002: The Irish Republican Army apologizes for the civilians it killed in the decades of sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland.

September 8, 2000: U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover extends a “formal apology to Indian people for the historical conduct of [the Bureau of Indian Affairs],” including policies of ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation inflicted upon American Indian and Alaska Native people in the United States.

September 9, 2001: President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, apologizes to the province of Aceh for the actions of past governments in the region’s separatist war that left thousands dead.

May 2, 2002: Virginia Governor Mark Warner apologizes for practices of forced sterilization affecting 8,000 people, marking the first time a U.S. governor formally apologized for a eugenics policy. Starting in 2015, the Virginia legislature agreed to pay $25,000 each to all living victims.

October 8, 2002: German media company, Bertelsmann, apologizes for its involvement with the Nazis and for later covering it up as well as using Jewish slave labor.

December 2, 2002: Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber apologizes for the 60-year-period of forced sterilization that affected more than 2,600 Oregonians.

January 8, 2003: Governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina apologizes to the 250 estimated victims and their families for practices of forced sterilization as part of the eugenics movement.

March 12, 2003: California Governor Gray Davis apologizes for forcible sterilization practices between 1909 and 1960s.

September 11, 2003: Balkan leaders apologize to one another for the violence committed by both sides during the war.

February 24, 2004: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni apologizes for failure to prevent a massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army at the Barlonyo camp for displaced persons.

May 2005: North Carolina becomes one of the first U.S. states to offer reparations as well as an apology for forcibly sterilizing low-income women and girls, and women and girls of color, in the 1930s-1970s. $20,000 checks were written and distributed to 220 victims in 2014; others did not qualify because the procedures were not performed under the aegis of the state’s Eugenics Board.

July 12, 2005: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw apologizes on behalf of the international community for its failure to prevent the Bosnian massacre from taking place.

July 16, 2006: Suriname President Ronald Venetiaan apologizes for a military massacre in 1986 when the State attacked a community of African-origin civilians. The victims receive compensation.

January 6, 2007: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes to Canadian-Syrian citizen Maher Arar who — on the basis of false information provided by Canada — was rendered by the United States to Syria where he was tortured. Harper stated:

On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you … and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003. … I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives.

“This means the world to me,” says Arar. Arar also received more than $11 million in compensation (including for legal fees).

March 15, 2007: U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizes for Britain’s role in the slave trade.

December 21, 2007: Ex-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori apologizes to the families who lost loved ones under his regime (but denied authorizing death squads).

February 13, 2008: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issues apology to Australia’s indigenous people for years of suffering under Aboriginal “protection and welfare” policies.

March 26, 2008: The Florida legislature apologizes for the state’s role in sanctioning and perpetuating slavery. In this regard, it followed on the heels of similar apologies issued by North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.

October 8, 2008: U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits that free market ideologies helped contribute to the global financial crisis.

March 31, 2009: Khmer Rouge torturer, Kaing Guek Eav (aka “Duch”) apologizes for acts of torture and executions he carried out, but also attempts to defend his actions.

April 30, 2009: At a press conference marking his first 100 days in office, U.S. President Barack Obama admits that waterboarding post-9/11 detainees was in error, but does not issue an apology to those who were subjected to it: “I believe that waterboarding was torture and, whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.”

August 1, 2009: Lt. William Calley apologizes for My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, 42 years later. He says:

There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. … I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.

November 9, 2009: Peru apologizes for the abuse, exclusion and discrimination” of its African-origin citizens over the past centuries.

April/May 2010: While serving as U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton apologizes for U.S. economic policies that resulted in greater poverty and food insecurity in Haiti. He states:

It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. … I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.

April 25, 2013: Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic apologizes for all “crimes” committed by Serbs during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, including the massacre at Srebrenica, though he continued to deny that the massacre was an act of genocide notwithstanding a ruling to this effect by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

June 6, 2013: U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague apologizes on behalf of the U.K. for its violent colonialism in Kenya in the 1950s.

August 1, 2014: In connection with the release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee “Torture Report,” U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledges that the United States “tortured some folks,” acted in ways that are “contrary to our values,” and “crossed a line.” He notes that “[w]e did some things that were wrong, and that’s what that report reflects,” but again fell short of issuing a full apology.

October 26, 2014: President Reuven Rivlin of Israel apologies for the Kfar Kessem massacre in which Israeli border police shot 49 Arab Israelis to death — including men, women, and children. Rivlin described the Kfar Kessem massacre as a “an irregular and dark chapter in the history of the relationship between Arabs and Jews living here.”

March 27, 2015: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta apologizes for the past wrongs committed by his administration and previous governments in Kenya, including post-election violence in 2007-8, the 1984 massacre of hundreds of Kenyan-Somalis, and unsolved murders, among other historical injustices.

March 24, 2016: U.S. President Barack Obama apologizes for the failure of the United States to condemn human rights abuses in Argentina’s Dirty War.

May 18, 2016: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes for the Komagata Maru Incident in 1914 in which hundreds of Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu passengers were forced to return to India after seeking refuge in Canada.

August 1, 2016: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen apologizes to indigenous communities for centuries of mistreatment and discrimination, marking the first time a Taiwanese president has issued an apology to its indigenous community.

November 24, 2017: Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen apologizes to Ghana for Denmark’s role in the slave trade.

April 4, 2018: Macedonia apologizes to Khalid El Masri for wrongfully detaining him in 2003 and then handing him over to the CIA, which transferred him to a detention center in Afghanistan where he was tortured and not released until 2007 even though it was clear that this was a case of mistaken identity as early as January 2004. El Masri has asked for an apology from the United States, which has not yet been forthcoming.

April 10, 2019: Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May apologizes for Amritsar massacre, which included the death of at least 379 Indians in the Pujabi city of Amritsar, led by British colonial troops. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn had urged the government to make a “full, clear, and unequivocal apology,” but May stopped short of clearly apologizing, instead expressing “deep regret.” A member of parliament had noted that an apology “could have financial implications” and opined “we debase the currency of apologies if we make them for many events.”

October 2, 2019: Canadian Premier François Legault apologizes to Quebec’s First Nations and Intuit people for Quebec’s decades of ill-treatment and systematic discrimination.

March 10, 2020: Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologizes for killings and abuses of colonial rule in Indonesia.

June 3, 2020: King Philippe of Belgium issues a letter to the DRC expressing his deepest regrets for his country’s brutal past, marking the first “public acknowledgement from a member of the Belgian royal family of the devastating human and financial toll during eight decades of colonization.”

September 14, 2020: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) apologize for the kidnappings perpetrated during Colombia’s civil war.

October 7, 2020: After advocacy by the survivors, the city of Greensboro finally apologizes for its role in a massacre perpetrated by a caravan of KKK and American Nazi Party members on Nov. 3, 1979 during an anti-KKK rally. The police knew that violence was contemplated but were not present. A scholarship program is established in memory of the victims.

January 12, 2021: Following the release of a government-commissioned investigative report, Ireland apologizes for the abuses at the mother and baby homes. The head of the Irish Catholic Church follows suit, stating: “for the long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted … I unreservedly apologize to the survivors.”

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The Vatican has apologized for several different situations where the Catholic Church either stood idly by while violations occurred or actively participated in them. Here are some examples:

August 14, 1985: Pope John Paul II issues apology for the involvement of the Catholic Church in the slave trade.

July 11, 1995: Pope John Paul II apologizes for the role the Catholic Church played in the oppression of women both in the Church and in society as a whole.

March 17, 1998: Pope John Paul II apologizes for the inaction of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust.

March 13, 2000: Pope John Paul II issues a broad apology for the errors of the Church committed over the past 2,000 years, including “[r]eligious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn.”

December 13, 2002: Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law resigns, apologizes, and begs for forgiveness for the mishandling of the sexual abuse scandal.

August 20, 2018: Pope Francis apologizes for the failure of the Catholic Church to protect the thousands of children who were sexually abused by “predator priests” in Pennsylvania.

November 4, 2020: In a letter penned by the city commission, the town of Ocoee apologizes for the 1920 Election Day Massacre in connection with the unveiling of a memorial to the event.

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Likewise, Japan has issued several apologies for the commission of war crimes during World War II, including the establishment of a system of sexual slavery and assault during World War II and as an occupier of the Korean Peninsula (a.k.a. the painfully misnamed “comfort women” system). However, all have been rejected by the survivors and their advocates.

September 25, 1972: Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei issues one of many apologies for war crimes committed in China against Chinese citizens.

August 4, 1993: Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologizes — on his last day in office — for the enslavement and sexual exploitation of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and other women during WWII; a fund to channel private donations is established. Prior to this point, Japanese officials had issued “statements of regret,” but they had never used the word “apologize.”

August 23, 1993: Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa calls WWII “a great mistake” and apologizes for Japan’s acts of aggression, colonial rule, and the unbearable suffering it caused for so many people.

August 15, 1995: Prime Minister Tomiichi Maruyama formally apologies on behalf of Japan for acts of aggression and atrocities committed during WWII:

During a certain period in the not-too-distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.

October 8, 2001: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologizes to China for Japan’s history of aggression. Koizumi is the first Prime Minister to lay a wreath at China’s memorial hall of the war of resistance.

March 13, 2014: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refuses to rescind the 1993 apology in the face of pressure to do so by nationalist politicians.

December 27, 2015: Following encouragement from U.S. President Barack Obama to Japan and South Korea to resolve the issue, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida issues an apology on behalf of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the few dozen South Korean survivors, stating that he,

expresses anew sincere apologies and remorse from the bottom of his heart to all those who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as “comfort women.”

In addition to the apology, Japan issues $8 million in compensation as part of a deal negotiated with South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. Survivors in the Philippines have not received either an apology or reparations.

January 12, 2018: Following Park’s impeachment as well as criticism that the deal worked out in 2015 was insufficient, Prime Minister Abe rejects South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s requests for the issuance of a new “voluntary and sincere” apology, indicating that the 2015 pact fully and finally disposed of the matter. Park had insisted that Japan,

apologize with wholehearted sincerity to the victims and take this as a lesson so as to avoid the recurrence of such atrocities by making efforts in conjunction with the international community.

January 7, 2021: A South Korean court ordered Japan to pay compensation to survivors, a judgment that drew rebuke from Japan. An NGO dedicated to representing the survivors — Comfort Women Action for Redress & Education (CARE) — argues that the judgment, while important, did not constitute the desired official apology from the Japanese government. In their statement, CARE writes:

Thus far, the Japanese government has issued only vague statements that do not specify its true role or the crimes committed, have been surrounded by denials and attempts at disavowal, and were never made to the survivors themselves.  To that end, the survivors’ other demands are: acknowledgment of the crimes, full disclosure and investigation, punishment of the perpetrators, public education, and memorials and museums, in addition to legal compensation.

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Image: WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – NOVEMBER 2, 1995: New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger (L) and Queen Elizabeth II (C), wearing a traditional Maori cloak of Kiwi feathers chat with Maori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu (R) after the signing of the Tainui Settlement Bill at Government House in Wellington 02 November. The Queen signed into law the bill which effectively offers a royal apology to the Tainui Maori tribal confederation for land the British colonial government seized last century. (Photo credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Daniella Stoltz

Daniella Stoltz is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley where she double majored in Political Science and History. She is currently the bilingual intake specialist and legal assistant at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).