Published: 15 September 2015

Governmental apologies can have numerous consequences for the state and victims, new study finds

A new study presented today in Cyprus has found that apologies made by governments can have numerous lasting consequences for both the country and the victims. For example, government apologies can place a burden of proof on victims rather than perpetrators. 

A team of researchers, including those from the University of Surrey, investigated a number of case studies, including the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings by the British Army in Northern Ireland, the pogroms upon Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire which have been claimed to be ‘genocide’, and slavery in the Caribbean imposed under the British Empire. 

Key findings are that: 

  • The process leading up to an apology places a burden on the victims, not the perpetrators, to establish guilt, accountability and to challenge official lines.
  • The early twenty-first century witnessed an ‘apology-boom’ in which governments considered or offered apologies for historical wrongs. However, apologies remain highly complex and should be considered as part of a broader process.
  • While governmental apologies have a moral component, they are ultimately political actions. Although they might be designed to provide a conclusion to demands or to a debate, apologies should be regarded as part of a wider political dialogue and process. They do not function as a conclusion in a dispute.
  • How the apology is represented in the media and by those involved in the campaign can significantly influence the reception and the effectiveness of the apology among the victims.
  • The making of a governmental apology can create a legacy for future generations. For example, commemoration activities could be continued or abandoned and versions of history based on apologies can be used to silence debates about history.
  • Reparations connected to apologies can take different forms - they do not necessarily involve money or a transfer of assets. They could, for example, involve altering an official narrative of history, in school textbooks or the acknowledgement of historical roots. These are generally slow to materialise due to their wide-reaching impact on society. 

Dr Arman Sarvarian, lecturer at the University of Surrey, said: ‘The importance of this project is evident in the continuous stream of governmental apologies being issued, each with its own context and challenges, yet all sharing similar dynamics.

“Government officials should reflect upon the potential for positive and negative consequences of issuing an apology in a given case and whether the methods used in making official apologies can be improved in general. Whilst the governmental apology could be an important factor in the resolution of the decades-long Cyprus conflict, its role and relationship to other important factors, such as reparations, need to be carefully considered.”

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