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RJ Center Berkeley, October 31 2022

Official Apologies for State-Sanctioned Violence

In Rhoda Howard-Hassmann’s piece on "Official Apologies," she identifies three types of public apologies. They are diplomatic, for when a harm occurs between states, political, in response to acts that have continuing political relevance, and historical, which address harms from the past and are directed to the descendants of those who were harmed. 

Howard-Hassmann then lays out several main elements of a public apology. The first is acknowledgement of the facts, including full and public disclosure of the truth and verification of the details of the harm. Another element is the acceptance of responsibility by a public entity,  absolving the recipients of any residual feeling that they caused the harm in any way. The third is a guarantee of non-repetition, publicly promising not to repeat the harm.

The goal of an apology is to rebalance the relationship, and undo any diminution of the recipients' social worth implied by the wrong. Govier offers similar definitions of and criteria for official apologies. More than Howard-Hassmann, Govier emphasizes a commitment to reform and practical amends. Thinking about these elements of an effective public apology, we examine the Apology for Japanese Internment by the United States Congress in 1988, also linked at the bottom of this post.

The Apology for Japanese Internment is a political apology for the harms to Japanese Americans during the era of the Second World War. It seems to have the goals of restoring relations ruptured during wartime and offering compensation.

The apology starts off with a section to acknowledge the facts. Even though it does not provide details or even preliminary statistics, it does frame internment as a “fundamental injustice”. It then goes on to accepting responsibility, “Congress recognizes that, as described by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry”, demonstrating accountability, regret, and remorse. The apology goes on to describe remedies and compensation for victims and families. The effort of locating eligible individuals will be led by the Attorney General, who may use any facility or resource of any public or nonprofit organization. There is also an establishment of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which will “provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event.”

The apology seems to be lacking the concepts of “commitment to reform” and “addressing the impact of present-day disparities”. The apology should be seen as a commitment to implement the stated changes far into the future, and because there is a certain federal amount which will eventually run out, there is in effect no long term plan to facilitate the reintegration of those interned into society. In terms of addressing present-day disparities, legislative bodies should specifically address the impact of past harms and lived realities by looking across socioeconomic indicators. This may be the optimal way of taking responsibility and accepting accountability for the real experiences that the government has put those it had harmed through.

“Official Apologies,” Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, Facing the Past: Amending Historical Injustices through Instruments of Transitional Justice, Peter Malcontent, ed. Intersentia, 2016 (247-264).

“The Apology Initiative,” Taking Wrongs Seriously, Trudy Govier, Humanity Books, 2006 (67-87).


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RJ Center Berkeley

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