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Technically, there is no legal responsibility for governments to apologize for past mistakes -- unless a specific law were passed requiring that.
However, governments have often decided that it is a good thing to apologize for past wrongs, and sometimes even to compensate the victims. The reason for this is that the past wrongs lead to resentment and rifts in the community. By apologizing and/or compensating, the government has a chance to heal those rifts and repair the damage done by the wrongs.
The interesting part of this question is determing the wrongs of the past. Sometimes history makes things that "look" right when they are done look "not so right" in later years. For instance, should Britain have to apologize for Neville Chamberlain and his "peace in our time" that may have lead to or accelerated WW II? Should the British apologize for the taxation that lead to the Revolutionary War? Or their efforts at colonizing, even if these raised the standard of living of the locals? And the Germans would be apologizing forever ....
This question is usually asked in terms of more obvious wrongs such as slavery or the interrment of the Japanese during WW II. The only problem I have with apologizing for these is the possibility of endless lawsuits ... if the apology came with a "no-sue" clause, it might be OK in very obvious cases. But I don't really know what is to be gained and think we should leave the past where it is.
I understand that when we speak of "wrongs of the past", we are speaking of wrongs committed in which the present government had no role to play.
If the present government had a role to play in a wrong committed, and if they realize their mistake, definitely it will be the right thing to apologize.
Now we will take up the case where neither the present government nor the present generation of people had a role to play in the wrong committed. Here there are two possible cases. One, the victim of the wrong can be compensated, and second the victim cannot be compensated.
When victim can be compensated, only apology is not enough. It should be the responsibility of the government to compensate the victim.
When there are no victims left to be compensated, an apology can help the survivors of the victim who associate themselves with them, as well as general public. It assuages the feeling of hurt and bitterness that that sympathizers of victims may have. It also helps the general public by reducing their feeling of guilt and increases their resolve not to commit similar mistakes in future. It also highlights the mistakes of the past so that people in general are well prepared not to repeat it in future. In general it improves the goodwill between different sections of society.
A few years back Australian Government and people apologized to the descendants of the original tribes in Australia, for the wrongs done by outside settlers to their ancestors. I believe this added to happiness of all people in Australia.
I believe that it is essential for those serving in government to recognize that they represent an iconic institution, not just themselves or their political party. It is the duty of government to serve the welfare of all of its citizens. When a government commits a wrong against its citizenry, it is incumbent upon that government to acknowledge the wrong and apologize for it. In some cases it is appropriate for the government to authorize reparations to compensate the victims of the wrong. The most glaring examples I can think of in the United States are slavery and the forced relocation of Native Americans and the taking of their tribal lands.
When a government commits a wrong against its citizenry, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to alter or abolish the government!
The purpose of government is to safeguard rights. Among these is the right to seek justice for wrongdoing. A governmental apology, like most apologies, is worthless. Apology is not the same as justice, and one should not settle for less if wronged. If you wish to assuage hurt feelings from long ago, justice is the more efficacious remedy. If citizens are moved for whatever reasons to correct some past issue, they should compel the government to redress, in the interests of justice.
From the responses to your discussion topic the government in question is the United States, therefore my post is from that frame of reference. The key in understanding any history is the insight those folks gain by their very reflection upon any given experience. The United States is not without terrible faults in 'human' judgements, however those American souls who sought to struggle made their struggle victorious.
I do not believe the government today should be held 'responsible' for the actions for another time and place. Having said that, I commend the U.S. government for the apology and reparations made to the families of Japanese Americans whose Civil Rights were deprived during W.W.II
What bothers me is the idea that the United States is looked upon as the only nation that owes anyone an apology. Frankly,and with all due respect, there are many other nations that have never completely recognized their inhumanity and indiscretions inflicted upon their own people as well as the peoples of other nations.
The principles of the United States are rooted in the aspiration of its people. It's up to them...the people...Overall the nation has fought long hard fights...although far from perfect, I believe the United States is on the winning curve when it comes to aspiring to the meaning of 'We The People' after all no one said it would be easy....
No, governments should have to apologize for happenings in the past; they should just work to prevent any such occurrences from happening in the future.
If a current government is always held responsible or feels responsible for prior happenings, how can they govern? Does the British government have to apologize all the time for their behavior with Cossacks, and when does the US ever stop apologizing for slavery?
The only thing that government must do is look forward and try to create the best future for people that it can.
No, the governments of the past have done many wrongs, but those wrongs belong to the past governments, not the current ones. (unless the past = present in almost every characteristic)
If government was a person, and if we were liable for all the sins of our ancestors that went unnoticed, then most, if not all of us would either be on deathrow or already dead. The same goes for governments: getting rid of governments, or making them "pay" is not the answer to their past misdeeds.
Nevertheless, governments must take heed of their predecessor's examples and try to lead the people into a future that will be better than the past.
I don't know if the correct word is "responsibility." I think it might be a form of acknowledgement and understanding to do so. For example, when the United States Congress apologizes for slavery recently, it shows a form of political and social understanding that might go some lengths in offering solace and, perhaps, set the stage for reconciliation and political and spiritual healing. While it is not a mandate for governments to do so, but in apologizing for evident wrongs of the past might bring a new sensibility to the topic, allowing more effective political rule.
Although we have often failed to live up to it, the United States from its inception has embraced the ideal of justice. Because we sometimes fail does not mean we abandon the principle. We still hold it dear and keep striving for it, which says a lot about us as Americans. I can think of no other country that is as self-critical as ours, which also says a lot about us. We still cherish and measure ourselves by the ideals that defined us in the beginning. We still seek justice and criticize ourselves when we realize how far we missed the mark--regardless of how many years have transpired.
I don't think apologizing for past wrongs is a formal responsibility. I think it's just who we are as a people. We now look back at slavery, at the treatment of Native Americans, at the Japanese internment camps, at segregation, and we simply cannot let them pass into our history without acknowledging that for whatever reasons at the time, we failed our own principles. This is a good thing. The day we stop recognizing our national failures as such will be the day we no longer remember who we are and how we came to be.
Here is a question, has President Obama apologized for slavery?
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