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How to apologise for genocide

  • 06 April 2010

French philosopher Jacques Derrida considered the value of the apology as proportionate to the nature of the challenge it was meant to overcome. The greater the challenge, with its varied obstacles, the greater the value for the apology given for that wrong.

Writers and moral philosophers have debated the possibility of forgiving the unforgivable — crimes against humanity for example. Their very inhumanity might be seen to militate against any act of apology. Such crimes, which include genocide, target the very essence of what it is to be human.

But a refusal to countenance apologies delivered by the highest authorities and from the most hated of historical enemies has its drawbacks. To place the victim definitively in a morally pre-eminent position may be a mistake. It forecloses ever considering a politics of apology. It cuts off the perpetrator from any avenue of genuine remorse and penance.

May it be better to let the perpetrator into the moral circle, to acknowledge the act and the human agency behind it, and to forgive? The remarkable events in the Serbian Parliament last week are telling for that very reason.

The apology issued is exceptional. An acknowledgment and apology condemning the massacre in 1995 of some 8000 Bosniaks that took pace in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica must surely be recognised. 'The parliament of Serbia strongly condemns the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, as determined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling.'

The text also affirms the continued cooperation with the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia and the cardinal importance in 'the discovery and arrest of Ratko Mladic so that he might stand trial before the ICTY'. Mladic, the key military figure behind the operation, is still at large.

Sceptics are bound to challenge the sincerity of the motion. Mark Karadzic, Serbia's youthful Deputy Minister of Human and Minority Rights, is not discouraged.

'I can't speak on behalf of others,' explained the minister to the Netherlands' NRC Handelsblad newspaper, 'but many people sincerely regret what happened.' Many matters and misperceptions need to be corrected. 'Serbs have been taught that half the world is against them and that the Yugoslavia tribunal is anti-Serbian.'

The nationalists were enraged. The debate lasted 13 hours and was often furious. Opposition