What Makes a Public Apology Meaningful? ICTJ Report Explores Apologies for Past Abuses


NEW YORK, January 28, 2016—What makes a public apology for human rights abuses meaningful? How best can a public apology recognize the dignity of victims, while paving the way for a more just and peaceful future? According to a new report released today by the International Center for Transitional Justice, the best apologies clearly acknowledge responsibility for the violations, recognize the continuing pain of survivors and victims’ families, and are linked with efforts to compensate and assist victims materially and through other justice measures.

The 26-page report, “More Than Words: Apologies as a Form of Reparation,” reviews dozens of public apologies made in connection with human rights violations and war crimes, with a particular focus on apologies to victims in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It also examines apologies made to indigenous people by governments of developed countries, including Canada and Australia.

Through a series of questions and answers, the report explores many of the issues and challenges likely to be faced by those considering a public apology as a form of reparation for victims.

“Apologies cannot completely remove or undo the pain or loss suffered by survivors and victims’ families, but they can be a meaningful way of recognizing the dignity of victims and an important step for a society trying to build peace,” says Ruben Carranza, director of ICTJ’s Reparative Justice program and co-author of the report.

Over the last two decades, dozens of heads of states have delivered apologies on behalf of their governments, with varying effectiveness. These include the contradictory apology by South African President F.W. de Klerk for apartheid-era crimes, Chilean President Patricio Aylwin’s unconditional apology for killings and torture committed under the Pinochet dictatorship, and the apology from the United Kingdom to Kenyan victims of the Mau-Mau “Land and Freedom” Army for abuses committed against them during their struggle to end colonialism.

According to the report, apologies can become statements of truth that reverse years of silence or official denial, vindicating the experiences and suffering of victims. They can also mobilize the rest of society to support reparations for victims and help the public understand the need for transitional justice measures, such as a truth commission or putting perpetrators on trial.

“Depending on how an apology is crafted and delivered, it can show victims and society that past injustices must be acknowledged and will be addressed,” explains Carranza. “But if not done correctly or for the right reasons, an apology may increase resentment and distrust or be rejected by victims as unjust.”

Because the words used in a public apology often convey more than what is said, they attract considerable public scrutiny and media attention, particularly with regard to their language, tone, delivery, and timing.

A recent example of such dispute was triggered by Japan’s apology for the “involvement of Japanese military authorities” during World War II in forcing Korean women to become sex slaves or “comfort women” of the Japanese Army. The apology was part of an agreement struck between the two countries that will provide funds to support the 46 surviving Korean victims. In exchange, South Korea will drop its demand for reparations, stop criticism of Japan on the issue, and seek removal of a memorial to “comfort women” constructed by survivors in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The agreement was denounced by most of survivors, who say the apology was made without consulting them, does not acknowledge Japan‘s legal responsibility to them, and still denies that Japan as a state initiated the system of “comfort stations.”

Working with victims before and after an apology is necessary to ensure it is meaningful and avoids this kind of response. Carranza explains, “The input of victims is essential to designing public apologies, because they ought to be made in a language victims can understand, delivered at a time and in a place that is meaningful to the victims, and includes measures that respond to their expectations.”

The report affirms that the process of developing consensus around the need for an apology can help societies to face their past, reaffirm values, and meet their obligations to victims, in the present and the future.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Media Contact

Refik Hodzic Director of Communications, ICTJ E-mail: rhodzic@ictj.org Tel: + 917-637-3853

PHOTO: Former "comfort women" and their supporters demand an apology from Japan during a demonstration in South Korea in 2012. (joonyoung kim/Flickr)