Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

How to apologise for genocide


Srebrenica MassacreFrench 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 MPs called the text 'shameful'. They believe that the declaration diminishes Bosnian Serbs' own status as victims, ignoring atrocities committed on them by Bosniaks and Croats between 1992 and 1995.

Velimir Ilic, a member of the opposition camp, felt that a mark of Cain was being placed on the Serbs of the future. 'Why do you want to put a mark on the future generations that they will never wash away?'

Some will also pick at weaknesses in this act. Survivors and their relatives will regret that the term genocide was not used. The massacre was an act of destruction against ethnicity as well as humanity. Such an omission might be seen as crippling and distorting. But the very fact that the apology was made at all must be seen as a remarkable step in purifying dark memories in the Balkans.

The apology also has greater resonance given the ongoing trial of Radovan Karadzic in The Hague. Posterity is a dark place that needs occasional lights of hope.

In our times the political apology has assumed freight and relevance, whether it be Rudd's act of contrition to the Stolen Generations in Australia, or the resolution passed last year by the US Senate apologising for slavery. As the lead sponsor of the resolution on slavery, Democrat Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa explained, 'It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice.' Few would disagree with that sentiment.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: binoy kampmark, political apologies, sorry, serbia, bosnia, muslim, srebrenica, massacre



submit a comment

Existing comments

This was Tutu's genius in South Africa, I thought -- to shove justice toward forgiveness -- to make the circle wide enough for sinners to enter. There is judgement and there is something far bigger and more riveting and holier. Isn't this the very essence of the gaunt Jewish's man. strange message?

Brian Doyle | 06 April 2010  

The first step is to acknowledge that something exists and so it is that the Serbian Parliament has taken that momentous first step. The challenge now is how to heal with some acknowledgement of what happened to individuals. There are some good but isolated programs for this to happen in Serbia, particularly coming from a cultural persective but the challenge is immense.

Perpetrators and victims have had to return to their lives as though nothing happened up to now. The bombed out buildings stand as a stark reminder in Belgrade but most of the damage throughout the region is behind closed doors. Thanks for the article.

Carol | 06 April 2010  

Thank you for this sensitive wise article, which helps me to take a healing step, as a created human being, as opposed to, after much suffering ,dwelling on the evils that have occurred, thus allowing bitterness to seep through my soul.

Bernadette Introna | 20 April 2010  

Similar Articles

The crucifixion of Christine Nixon

  • Moira Rayner
  • 09 April 2010

No firestorm of blame would be raging in the media were Christine Nixon not a woman, a decent and strong woman, a prominent woman and an ethically sound woman of an age and with the experience to possess a raging integrity of her own and, by her very being, to offer ruthless men a soft target.


Abbott, Santamaria and Catholic Liberals

  • John Warhurst
  • 30 March 2010

Tony Abbott had a close association with B. A. Santamaria and personifies church ties with politics through his relationship with the man he has called his confessor, Cardinal Pell. The question is whether Abbott is a one-off or represents a larger group of Catholic Liberals.