Apologies for Human Rights Abuses Should Augment, Not Replace, Material Reparations



Public apologies can be the most direct and explicit way of acknowledging the harms suffered by victims of human rights violation. In a transitional justice context, when delivered in a meaningful way, they can provide momentum for more justice and vindication of victims’ rights.

More Than Words: Apologies as a Form of Reparation, a new report from ICTJ, uses a question-and-answer format to discuss what makes apologies meaningful in transitional justice processes. To further illuminate the ideas presented in the report, ICTJ Communications Associate Dan Verderosa spoke with Ruben Carranza, co-author of the report and director of ICTJ’s Reparative Justice program.

Carranza stresses that the relationship between apologies and material reparations is crucial. He says that apologies should not be given instead of material reparations, such as monetary compensation or healthcare, but rather should complement them.

In an example of such positive practice, Chilean President Patricio Aylwin apologized in 1991 for abuses committed by the state under the Pinochet regime, and also committed to a comprehensive reparations program that included healthcare, pensions, and memorials.

“There is always a relationship that has to be balanced between simply acknowledging symbolically through words and materially acknowledging through services, through compensation, through rehabilitation survivors, as well as families of victims,” says Carranza

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When asked to assess Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2014 apology for past wrongs committed by the Kenyan state, Carranza noted that the apology crucially was accompanied by a promise to establish a restorative justice fund to provide reparations to victims. However, he criticized Kenyatta for essentially ruling out criminal prosecutions for crimes committed during the 2007 post-election violence in the same speech.

“It is important not to rely on apology as a way of ending accountability but instead to rely on it as a way of opening up spaces for accountability,” Carranza says.

Carranza also acknowledged that apologies can be misused. For example, he cites the recent Japanese apology to South Korean victims of sexual slavery during World War II as one that was politically motivated, where the acknowledgement of victims and survivors was secondary to furthering the interests of the Japanese, South Korean, and United States governments.

Apologies can also be misused when they are given in exchange for promises of reconciliation or amnesty, rather than as a sincere expression of regret, Carranza says.

Victims and their families, Carranza asserts, should be a part of the apology process, and should be consulted regarding the language used, timing, and location where an apology is delivered. In Guatemala, for example, victims of government atrocities were consulted and as a result, an apology was delivered locally, at the places where the abuses occurred.

“An apology is not a unilateral statement,” says Carranza. “It is a begging of forgiveness.”

PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologizes for government programs that took children from Aboriginal families, the “stolen generations,” in a speech broadcast live to the nation in 2008. (Virginia Murdoch/Flickr)