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Political Apologies across Cultures

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - APOLOGY (Political Apologies across Cultures)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2022-02-28

In the past decades, there has been a considerable rise in the number of apologies offered by states for injustices and human rights violations. Among transitional justice scholars, there is significant debate about how useful such apologies are. Whereas some have applauded these gestures as an important step in peacemaking processes, others have argued that they may not fit in all cultures and may even be a risky tool for peacemaking. Unfortunately, theorizing and research in the field of transitional justice is still in its infancy and has not systematically addressed questions of cross-cultural variability yet. So, at present, we do not know whether political apologies are a universally viable way to restore justice and harmony.

My project addresses this challenge. Using an innovative, interdisciplinary, and multi-method approach with in-depth interviews, (experimental) surveys, and content analyses of apologies, I analyze whether there are universals in how political apologies are valued, expressed, and interpreted or whether this varies as a function of cross-cultural differences in key values (collectivism and individualism) and norms (face and honor). Based on these findings, I build a theoretical framework that will fundamentally advance our understanding of the potential value and role of apologies in transitional justice processes.

This project breaks new ground because it is the first to take the difficult step to collect cross-cultural data to examine whether key assumptions regarding political apologies hold across cultures. It is also the first in this area to use a multi-method approach, which makes it possible to take into account the complex reality of political apologies. Combining insights from transitional justice, cross-cultural psychology and anthropology, this project places theorizing on transitional justice on a much firmer footing and paves the way to more cross-culturally valid models to restore justice and promote reconciliation.
One key goal of this project was to examine how political apologies are viewed in different countries, and whether or not key assumptions regarding such gestures are shared by people across the world (e.g. that collectives can be held responsible for past wrong-doing, that people can feel ashamed for actions by their country, that apologies by states are an appropriate way to deal with past human rights violations). For this, we conducted more than 240 in-depth interviews, conducted so-called vignette studies (N>500), and collected more than 1300 surveys in different parts of the world (Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Poland, The Netherlands, US) to assess people’s ideas about collective responsibility, shame and guilt, and their views on the value and meaning of apologies by the state in the aftermath of human rights violations (also relative to other transitional justice measures). We also conducted a survey across 33 countries, whereby we focused on people’s attitudes toward state apologies for human rights violations in general, and by their own country in particular. Overall, we find that people across the world see the value of state apologies at a more abstract level, although they are often less likely to accept collective responsibility and support the offering of an apology for wrongdoing by their own country. We also find that people’s notions in this regard are shaped more by the cultural context than by the political context, and in particular by the extent to which face and honor norms and the collective are emphasized in a country.

Another key goal in this project was to examine how political apologies are expressed and received across different countries. For this, we created a database of political apologies for human rights violations across the world, which we also coded in terms of their content and form. This database is now publicly available, together with all the coded files (www.politicalapologies.com). We also conducted three case studies on the apologies for the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, the massacre on Jeju island (South Korea), and Bloody Sunday (UK). We conducted 127 interviews and collected 1,011 surveys among victim and non-victim community members in these countries regarding their evaluation of the meaning and impact of the apology. Finally, we conducted an experimental survey across 32 countries (N> 11,000), in which participants were asked to imagine a situation in which their country had either been the perpetrator or the victim of violence, and in which they evaluated different versions of an apology given for the harm done. Our findings show that political apologies for human rights violations have been offered by countries across the globe, but by liberal democracies in particular. We find that there is remarkable overlap in the types of rhetorical strategies that countries use in these apologies to (1) acknowledge past wrongdoings, (3) bridge past wrongdoings with future intentions, and (3) bond with the intended recipients of the apology. Furthermore, we show how countries use these strategies not only to address the needs of victims, but also to portray and understand themselves, whereby they often imitate the language that has become standard in human rights memorialization practices. Our case studies show that the apology that was offered was seen as a relatively important, but not necessarily as an impactful gesture. For it to be perceived as impactful, it also has to be seen as a meaningful (i.e. sincere) gesture, and this depends (among other things) on people’s trust in the country’s institutions. Overall, our findings suggest that apologies have a role to play in the aftermath of human rights violations, but that it is essential to take the broader context into account.

Our findings have been published in academic journals, and we have also given numerous invited talks and presentations at national and international conferences. We have written popular pieces as well, and we have appeared on radio shows and in podcasts. Our research has also been covered by various magazines. Our database on political apologies has been made publicly available.
At present there is no agreement on what political apologies mean, how valid, appropriate and meaningful they are, and whether they are universally perceived as a viable way to restore justice or promote reconciliation in the aftermath of injustices and human rights violations. The cross-national and cross-cultura; data that are generated by this project have allowed us to verify whether key assumptions regarding the value, meaning, and effectiveness of political apologies actually hold in different settings. As such, they provide an important basis for further theorizing on the potential value and role of political apologies in redressing past wrongs and promoting reconciliation. They also contribute to a more nuanced and contextualized perspective, and raise awareness of how and when cultural values and norms may impact people’s reactions to political apologies. Such a nuanced approach is likely to be more appropriate than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in which a universal template for transitional justice is imposed. By collecting and sharing data on how people across different cultures think about and respond to political apologies, this project provides a clearer idea about the role that political apologies can play in redressing past wrongs and promoting reconciliation and such findings are valuable for all those working in the field of transitional justice.
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