Friday, September 16, 2011

The Apology of Nations

apology (n): a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.
When someone says "I am sorry that you were offended" what is he really saying? Is he saying that his words should not have been taken in a bad way, but that you unfortunately did? Is he really defending his actions as morally right? In some cases, this is how an apology is offered between individuals, not sincere or contrite. It might have to do with another older meaning of the word. An apology in classical terms comes from the word apologia. (Gk: an apology, as in defense or justification of a belief, idea, etc.). It is a speech in defense of an idea or action, as was the case in such famous apologetics as Plato's Apology of Socrates and Milton's Areopagitica.

Today, however, apology has a more emotional, if you may, visceral meaning and is closest to the dictionary denotation cited above, an expression of regret, remorse or sorrow for an action that wronged someone or a group of persons, a people, a nation, a race. Such is particularly the case when we come to define national apologies. So, what is the reason that apologies are given? Essentially, it's a form of communication, whether to skillfully defend an action or idea, or to express regret.

Apologies at the highest level can also offer therapeutic value to the nation or group that offers the apology and heal its internal wounds. Some consider such gestures symbolic and hollow, even meaningless. Others as a sign of weakness. Such are the words of cynics and skeptics. I disagree and believe that apologies form a foundational way for nations to amend for wrongs committed. They make things better, similar to how relations between individuals can become better by one making a simple apology to another.

Remember that apologies have been part of diplomatic strategies and rhetoric among nations and are as ancient as they are human. They are also desired, even demanded on the international stage. When for example, one nation deems another nation's action wrong, it requests (or demands) a formal apology accompanied by some form of financial restitution (or redress), the amount dependent on the severity of the loss—similar to a civil lawsuit but with greater political implications.

Of course, placing a value on a human life might seem callous to some, but there is no other remedy under international law and precedent deems this as the best remedy to settle disputes. A recent incident is the diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident (see here and here.)

The Silent Apology: During a state visit to Poland on December 7, 1970, coinciding with a commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, joined in and spontaneously dropped to his knees before the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
SourceFacingHistory
Notable National Apologies

We'll return to that case shortly, but first it's important to review some notable national apologies of some consequence and historical significance:
1. Germany—The Shoah ("Holocaust"):  During a state visit to Poland in December 1970, coinciding with a commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, joined in and spontaneously dropped to his knees. Brandt was silent, and later said in his autobiography, that upon "carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them." Germany has since paid out billions to Israel and to Jewish survivors.
2. United States— American Slavery and Jim Crow laws: After U.S. President Barack Obama was in office for six months, the American Congress issued a federal apology on July 29, 2009. In the legal document, it said the resolution could not be used as a legal basis for reparations. It said: "Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."
3. South Africa—Apartheid: F.W. de Klerk, the last South African leader of the apartheid era, appeared before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on August 21, 1996, to apologize for 46 years of oppression, saying the racist policy was "deeply mistaken." The government paid out US$74 million—$300 million less than the sum recommended by the commission—to more than 19,000 victims. That is less than $4,000 per victim.
4. United States—Internment of Japanese-Americans. During the Second World War, between 1942 and 1945, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps. More than forty years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the official Civil Liberties Act of 1988 on August 10, 1988, which included a $1.25-billion education fund. Two years later, on October 9, 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration started paying out $20,000 to each of the surviving internment victims. (Here is an example of a presidential letter of apology that accompanied the cheques.)
                                                                                         
Canadian Apology: Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine (right, wearing headdress) watches as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologizes, on June 11, 2008, for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving Indian residential schools.
Photo Credit: Canadian Press/Tom Hanson
Source: FindingDulcinea
Notable Canadian Apologies

In Canada, my country of birth and residency, the federal government has offered apologies and compensation to:
1.Japanese-Canadians:  In September 1988, the Government of Canada formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered compensation for wrongful incarceration, seizure of property and the disenfranchisement of 22,000 Japanese Canadians during the Second World War: As Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s said in the House of Commons, on September 22, 1988: “I know that I speak for Members on all sides of the House today in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, against their families, and against their heritage, and our solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated.” Each of the 13,000 survivors of the camps were eligible for $21,000 compensation. Art Miki, of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, called the apology and $300 million compensation package “a settlement that heals.”

2. Aboriginals: On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada, delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons to former students, their families, and communities for Canada's role in the operation of the residential schools. From 1870 until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to strip them of their native culture and assimilate them into Canadian society. In the televised remarks Prime Minister Harper said: "We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, and that it created a void in many lives and communities and we apologize." The federal government also agreed to set aside a fund of $1.9 billion for about 80,000 survivors.
These are attempts to make things right and ought to be accepted as such. In other cases, little has been done to heal the wounds. There have been other genocides, including in China, the USSR, Cambodia and Sudan. Too many in the twentieth century alone.


The Young Turks

With that in mind, let's return to Turkey's diplomatic dispute with Israel. I am not sure if Israel has to issue a formal apology to Turkey. There might be mitigating circumstances surrounding the incident and I leave it to Israel to decide its own foreign policy. It's noteworthy that Turkey's demand of an apology from Israel fails to take a sober account of its own record of wrongdoing.

In 1915 Turkey massacred and displaced upwards of two million Armenians, the majority dying through forced death marches and starvation, in what some would call the twentieth century's first genocide. Tribal nationalism—through a ruling group called Young Turks— was at the heart of it. As the Genocide Education Project puts it:
The adult and teenage males were separated from the deportation caravans and killed under the direction of Young Turk functionaries. Women and children were driven for months over mountains and desert, often raped, tortured, and mutilated. Deprived of food and water and often stripped of clothing, they fell by the hundreds of thousands along the routes to the desert. Ultimately, more than half the Armenian population, 1,500,000 people were annihilated.
 As Wikipedia reports:
In 2005, the International Association of Genocide Scholars affirmed[5] that scholarly evidence revealed the "Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens – an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches." 
There is also the United Nations Human Rights Council report here. And here is a letter that the IAGS sent to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (June 13, 2005). The evidence is unassailable, and one can be blind to its conclusions and findings only if one lacks an operating moral conscience and cares little about humanity. Many people, and not only Armenians, say that Turkey ought to make a formal apology and monetary restitution to the Armenian people.  That would be a step in the right direction. That would take courage, no doubt. That would take a statesman.

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