Two years ago this weekend, President Bush apologized for the humiliation suffered by prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bush said, "I told him [King Abdullah] I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."
It is a rare thing, but not unprecedented, for the president of the United States to apologize for the nation's lapses in the realm of human rights. In March of 1998, during a visit to Africa, President Clinton issued two apologies for America's failings. In Uganda, he apologized for American involvement in the slave trade: "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that." During a brief stop in Kigali, Rwanda, he apologized for the international community's failure to respond to the 1994 genocide in that country:
The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.
He said, "It may seem strange to you here, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." The apology was widely criticized for the false impression it conveyed concerning the limits of the outside world's knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.
(Last year, during a visit to Rwanda as a private citizen, Clinton visited a memorial to the victims of the genocide where he was somewhat more direct in his apology, saying, "I express regret for my personal failure.")
In March of 1999, during a trip to Central America, President Clinton apologized for the United States' support for Guatemala's brutal military regime, which killed approximately 200,000 people during a civil war that lasted 36 years. "It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report [of the UN's Historical Clarification Commission] was wrong," he said. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala."
Apologies for human rights abuses are always controversial, first because they require acknowledging wrongdoing. Furthermore, some will regard an apology as a poor substitute for justice while others will consider an apology to be beneath the dignity of a world power. Those who believe that moral norms for states differ from those for individuals will generally think that apologies are uniquely suited to interpersonal relations.
Notwithstanding the problems they may pose, apologies can help states, as well as individuals, escape a painful past. When a nation fails to acknowledge its mistakes, it may be because it has "illusions of righteousness," a condition that often prompts additional mistakes.
For more on the subject of apologies and foreign policy, see Mark Gibney and Erik Roxstrom, "The Status of State Apologies," Human Rights Quarterly 23 (November 2001): 911-39. [Available via the Project Muse database from subscribing libraries.] Also, former ambassador Robert A. Seiple has an essay on "Confessional Foreign Policy" here.
[Thanks to David Higa for research related to this post.]