By: Lindsey Alpaugh, staff writer.

On Tuesday, October 12th, the Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Network Seminar Series hosted a discussion via Zoom, “Trends in Political Apologies Across the World: Insights From the Political Apologies Database,” featuring Dr. Juliette Schaafsma and Ph.D. Candidate Marieke Zoodsma from Tilburg University. Dr. Schaafsma and Zoodsma spoke about the nature of political apologies, as well as their recently launched resource, the Political Apologies Database. The database is part of a larger project the scholars are conducting, funded by the European Research Center, looking into the key questions surrounding political apologies. 

The researchers began their lecture by outlining the larger discussion around political apologies. As states offer, or are asked to offer, political apologies for human rights violations, they may face skepticism or criticism for their motivations. Questions of sincerity, and how this apology might relate to norms of governance emerge for both those affected by the human rights violations, as well as the public at large. Dr. Schaafsma and Zoodsma also noted that political apologies also explore the themes of collective responsibility and guilt, such as, is an apology possible, and should countries even apologize? Have countries been sufficiently repentant? 

The researchers took a cross-national approach in their studies, both in terms of how political apologies are perceived, and how they are received by those on the other end. They surveyed how people thought about collective responsibility, guilt, and shame, as well as how political apologies could act as a tool for confronting past harms. When asked for comment on the process of putting together the database, Zoodsma stated that “creating and developing this database was a time consuming, meticulous process and it is very rewarding to now finally be able to share it with the world!”

Criteria for the Database  

The database tracks governmental apologies for human rights violations. The researchers define a governmental apology as “a statement issued by a national state or state representative to a collective for a human rights violation.” They use the United Nations definition for a human rights violation. When attempting to identify an essential quality of a political apology, scholars are split. Some believe that it is essential for the apology to include the word “sorry” or “I apologize,” while others believe it should also include the promise of non-repetition or material reparations as well. Dr. Schaafsma and Zoodsma keep their definition broad, including any expression of guilt, remorse, wrongdoing, or suffering of the victims. 

Contents of the Database

At the time of the presentation, the database contained 351 apologies. When available, the database includes information about each apology such as the date, setting, the official or governing body that offered the apology, the apology medium, language, and context for the apology. The database website organizes this information into a heatmap, so users can see where apologies are grouped geographically. The database includes the full text of many of the apologies. 

Trends in the Database 

The database analyzes temporal and geographical trends. One of the key takeaways the database has shown is the idea of an “age of apology.” Using the temporal tracking feature in the database, the researchers were able to notice that most political apologies occurred after 1975, with a spike in the aftermath of the Cold War in the 1990s. According to them, 2015-2019 is when most political apologies emerged. 

Most political apologies relate to human rights violations related to the Second World War, and most related to maltreatment of minority groups. According to the database, Japan, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom have offered the most apologies (in that order). The database also tracks how much time lapses between the apology and the violation, with the scholars finding the average time to be about 40 years. 

The researchers also took time to analyze the rhetoric put forward in the text of the apologies and found patterns that tracked around the globe. The idea of a break from the past, bridging the present with the future, and connecting with victim groups were predominant, with the variation often not being whether or not these ideas were present, but more so how emphasized they were. Many apologies have explicit reference to wrongdoing, but there are recurring strategies countries use for avoiding explicit mention of enacted harm. Words such as “incidents” “events” and “actions” obscure the scale of the atrocities. Alternately, words such as “harm” and “wrongdoing” deflect from the active role of the state in these events. Metaphors are commonly used, with the idea of viewing negative periods of history as “chapters” becoming a cliché. 

Overall, the database serves as a helpful tool for human rights researchers, political scientists, and observers looking to analyze trends in political apologies. The host of the event and Professor of History at Colgate, Dr. Alexander Karn, offered that “group apologies are sometimes denigrated as empty gestures or as mere words that don’t affect meaningful change, but the fact that both victims and perpetrators attach so much weight to them suggests that they do have political and even material value. The political apologies database project at Tilburg allows us to ask some big questions that open a door to useful comparative analysis.” With this knowledge, the database allows us to begin answering questions about the effectiveness and intention with these apologies. 

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