Exploring the Collective mea culpa: Reconciliation Between Nations and Populations

AuthorJosh Boughton
S.S.L.R. Exploring the Collective mea culpa
Vol. 1
Exploring the Collective mea culpa: Reconciliation
Between Nations and Populations
Josh Boughton
The „apology‟ is an important weapon in any politician‟s armoury of political
rhetoric. I n order to cultivate reconciliation, politicians are quick to deliver
sincere apologies for wrongs that they, their governments, or their nation have
committed. By considering two recent political apologies, this article seeks to
explore how apologies can legitimately function on behalf of a nation. David
Cameron‟s apology to the relatives of the victims of „Bloody Sunday‟ provides
us with an opportunity to revisit the debate that was provoked in 2008 with
Kevin Rudd‟s apology to Australia‟s „Stolen Generations‟. By considering these
apologies, this article explores the way in which collective apologies can be
explained and supported. The author submits that all citi zens of a nation can
legitimately participate in a collective apology through experiencing a sense of
national responsibility. The author further submits that this responsibility is
founded on privilege: being privileged enough to be able to enjoy the triumphs
in your nation‟s history means that you must also accept the failures. The
author concedes that while apologies can be effective in reconciling
relationships and ameliorating the present, they must not be overestimated;
they cannot exist in a vacuum. Apologies must be accompanied by additional
factors in order to function as effective vehicles for reconciliation and justice
pologies are an integral part of modern social discourse; from the brief
„sorry‟ that we offer as we brush past another individual to the more
sincere „I am sorry for the way I acted‟. Aside from their role as a basic
social mechanism, apologies have been used in recent years to embody a much
more profound political purpose. Apologies have been employed by numerous
politicians to express regret and remorse for wrongs that they, their
government, or their nation have committed. For example, Prime Minister
Kevin Rudd‟s apology to Australia‟s Aboriginal population in relation to the
„Stolen Generations‟ attracted a great deal of attention from indigenous and
non-indigenous Australians alike. More recently, t he notion of the apology as
a method of reconciliation was br ought to the forefront of public attention
with David Cameron‟s apology to the relatives of the victims of „Bloody
Sunday‟. This high profile and very public example provides a new
opportunity to examine the question of whether apologies issued on behalf of
[2011] Southampton Student Law Review
Vol. 1
groups can support the process of reconciliation after mass atrocity and
This article intends to assess the effectiveness of the „collective apology‟ as a
mechanism for r econciliation. It will examine the two political apologies
mentioned above in order to explore the tenability of the group apology, and
to consider whether it can be effective in assisting reconciliation and
ameliorating the present. The discussion will consist of four sections. The first
section will examine the foundations of the apology as an instrument for
reconciliation and justice, in particular the necessary elements of a full
apology. The second section will explore the collective apology in relation to
Australia. This will include a brief history of the treatment of the Aboriginal
people, followed by an explanation of how it is considered that the concept of
the „group apology‟ can be rationalised and explained. The third section will
consider how David Cameron‟s apology for Bloody Sunday corresponds with
the debate that surrounded the apology in Australia. This will include a brief
outline of the history of the conflict in Ireland, followed by an examination of
Cameron‟s apology. The final section will examine whether these collective
apologies can materially aid the process of reconciliation. It will be argued that
apologies can act as sophisticated forms of justice that contribute to the
process of reconciliation and in doing so, demonstrate that apologies on behalf
of groups can, and indeed do, work. This article will go on to emphasise that
while apologies may be greatly welcomed, they must contain certain features
and be accompanied by certain commitments in order to be effective.
The Apology as a Method of Reconciliation
Different nations respond in various ways following periods of mass atrocity.
Wit h the culmination of conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in 1994,
Rwanda pursued prosecutions through its „Gacaca‟ courts system. South
Africa, on the other hand, created its „Truth and Reconciliation Commission‟
to bring reconciliation and closure following the Apartheid regime. Other
countries have issued apologies. Martha Minow explains that we should not be
rigidly prescriptive when considering responses to mass atrocity for two
1 Firstly, the variety of cir cumstances can differ vastly between
nations, and the context in which conflicts occur is hugely important. There
are many factors that can affect whether a given system works, including
religion, culture, historical background and context, and the proportion of the
population affected.2 Secondly, and arguably more importantly, no response is
adequate when a child or family member has been killed. Minow explains that
the fact that a perpetrator can never reverse the wrongdoing means that the
most effective remedy for the situation must be pur sued.3 For many nations,
an apology undoubtedly serves as an effective instrument for dealing wit h past
1 M Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass
Violence (Beacon Press, Boston 1998) 4.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., at 5.

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