Should a nation apologise for the crimes of its past?

Kate and William are welcomed by representatives of the Bella Bella First Nations community in British Columbia. Mark Large/Daily Mail PA Wire/Press Association Images

The big political question facing the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they paid a state visit to Canada recently was whether they would be called on to apologise to First Nations peoples for the ravages of colonialism that have left their communities at such a bitter disadvantage.

As it turned out, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs declined to attend a reconciliation ceremony, saying:

Reconciliation has to be more than empty symbolic gestures … the chiefs-in-assembly just didn’t feel that it was appropriate to feed into that public illusion that everything is okay.

Certainly, it is hard not to take a dim view of European colonialism, entailing – as it did – theft, racism, cultural destruction, slavery and sometimes genocide. Yet merely recognising the violations of colonialism does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the states that once practised it should now apologise for their historical misdeeds.

One of the most common arguments against apology is that offered by former Australian prime minister John Howard when called upon to offer an apology to Aboriginal peoples for the wrongs visited upon them since British settlement. He maintained that today’s generation cannot and should not be held accountable for the behaviour of their predecessors. Indeed, from a liberal perspective, the idea of holding people responsible for the crimes of their ancestors is deeply unsatisfactory.

A counter argument is that, while the current generation did not actually commit the crimes, many within it still reap the rewards of a world in which white Europeans and the descendents of white settlers remain disproportionately privileged in comparison to the peoples they once conquered. As such, the privileged among the current generation acquire guilt by virtue of the fact that their favourable position in the contemporary capitalist system has its roots in empire.

But there are problems with this argument. There’s little doubt that many accrued their contemporary privilege through empire – but this position lacks any nuance in distinguishing between the perpetrators, foot soldiers, onlookers, objectors and the current generation. Moreover, clearly many white Europeans also suffered in the colonial process, just as not all benefit from modern capitalism or 21st century overseas wars.

A potential solution to this for those that advocate apology is to acknowledge that the current generation did not do wrong, but their state did. In this sense, political leaders, as representatives of the culpable entity, should apologise on behalf of the state and its citizens for the state’s misdeeds. This only works when it was the state that committed the violations, rather than settlers or organisations acting independently of the state. It also assumes that the same state that perpetrated the crimes remains intact today. A problematic example here is Turkey being asked to apologise for the Armenian genocide when the event occurred before the establishment of Turkey as a republic in 1923.

The issue of intergenerational injustice is further complicated by our multi-cultural, yet vastly unequal, societies. Can a French citizen of Algerian descent, for instance, apologise (or have a president apologise on their behalf) for France’s colonial atrocities in Algeria? What would it mean for an African-American president of the US to apologise for slavery? These examples create dizzying situations where one could be both recipient and giver of apology.

Starting point

A common criticism is that state apologies are merely gimmicks and that radical redress and reparations are needed – not empty gestures. There can be no doubt that politicians are prone to cheap gestures, but maybe apologies have the potential to be more than this. Perhaps they can be a starting point for the serious discussions needed about material redress.

Apologies by states are frequently associated with demands for reparations. When US president Ronald Reagan apologised to Japanese Americans interned in the context of World War II, each surviving victim received $20,000 in compensation. Equally, German contrition for the Holocaust has been linked with reparations to Israel. But when it comes to the matter of colonialism, leaders have been keen to decouple the issue of contrition and reparations.

After a lengthy legal campaign, in 2013 the UK government eventually offered “sincere regret” and £2,600 each to around 5,000 people imprisoned and tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. The British government is currently resisting further legal claims by 44,000 Kenyans who allege appalling mistreatment by British authorities in the same context.

Germany has been prepared to acknowledge the Herero genocide in former German south-west Africa, but at each stage German officials have ruled out reparations. It seems that political leaders of formerly colonising states are concerned about both the tricky task of facing the violent past in terms of their state’s current self-image and the potential opening of a Pandora’s box when it comes to reparations.

Apologies as stories

Apologies, above all else, are stories about the past, what happened and why it happened. With many in Europe still clinging to populist notions of their nation’s idyllic past and the present danger of outsiders – often from previously colonised territories – apologies could act as a way to challenge such misconceptions. Equally, state apologies, at their best, don’t happen in vacuums – they can be reinforced with further measures aimed at reconciliation, such as more reflective school curricula and textbooks, museums and public monuments. In short, perhaps apologies can be welcome starting positions for more introspection about both the past and the present.

But it’s not just the stories articulated that are important. There is the equally significant issue of who tells the story and whose voice is heard. One of the many tragedies of colonialism is that not only did it pillage, it also curtailed voice. It denied the history of the invaded and imposed a white, eurocentric narrative.

A quandary regarding apologies is the danger that their very format reproduces the same problem – again giving the microphone to the Western politician. Yes, the politician offers a suitably regretful demeanour, but it is an opportunity to be statesmanlike and magnanimous – and, crucially, to speak and be heard. In other words, the Western politician is yet again given an elevated platform to tell stories about events that happened to other people.