When Australia said sorry

Shahira Samy ponders the significance for the Arab-Israeli conflict
of Australia's apology to its aboriginal community

by Shahira Samy

Al-Ahram Online Weekly

6-12 March 2008

Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to his country's Aborigines in the name of the Australian government and parliament: "... for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry ..."

The apology comes more than 10 years after the country's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its Bringing Them Home report, unravelling how 100,000 aboriginal and mixed race children were forcibly removed from their families. Between 1910 and the 1970s, several federal and state laws designed to integrate the children into "white" environments were in practice. The "stolen generations" of Australian aborigines grew up in white foster homes, orphanages and Church missions, often subject to physical abuse and forced into unpaid labour, among other sufferings.

Australia's official apology to its "Stolen Generation" is a milestone in the history of the Australian nation and all communities plagued with conflict. The importance of this apology does not stem from dwelling on the past and settling accounts between two rival camps. The historic apology should rather be viewed as a mechanism to turn a wrongful past into a vehicle for a better future. Australians and others in cases where apologies have been offered for historical injustices have come to understand that settling a conflict and moving on in a reconciliation process is possible only by addressing the past and acknowledging the injustice that occurred, not overlooking it.

In its approach to conflict resolution, the international community has gone beyond the early 20th century dominant Versailles spirit. Confining historical injustices to acts of war and linking them to stark victor/ vanquished distinctions whereby losers in war pay financial compensation to victors in the guise of reparations, is no longer the modus operandi. Instead, the notion of reparations takes other forms than just financial compensation. Apology has emerged as an important form of reparation to injustice, and a necessary step towards reconciliation.

When Australia's parliament assembled in Canberra for Rudd to deliver his apology, an unprecedented traditional welcoming ceremony performed by the Ngambri- Ngunmawal tribe inaugurated the event. The ceremony was considered to be the government's way of admitting for the first time that the land on which Australia's capital was built was once owned by the Ngunnawal and was expropriated without compensation. News reports carried the story of tribal elder Matilda House-Williams describing how a solitary aboriginal man was forced to leave the old parliament building in Canberra 80 years ago. This attachment to land -- or rather the severing of the land's connection to its aboriginal custodians -- is at the core of the injustice for which the government is today repenting. In fact, one of the Stolen Generation's survivors depicts his in the following words: "I was stripped of... my connections to land that stretch back through my ancestors for thousands of generations."

It is striking how similar the Australian story is to what occurred in the land of Palestine some 60 years ago. But Australia's apology today is indeed thousands of miles away from the current fate of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The exodus of approximately two thirds of the Palestinian people engendered by expulsion policies practised as the state of Israel was forged in the late 1940s is the historical injustice the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge. The steady thread throughout numerous rounds of negotiations has been Israel's constant denial of responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem, despite proof of the opposite, as Israeli "new historians" pouring over Israeli state archives have shown in literature on the issue. How can a sustainable solution ending a conflict affecting four generations of refugees amounting to more than four million persons, according to UN figures, be found if the original injustice is not even acknowledged by its perpetrators, let alone worthy of an act of contrition to the victimised group?

Scepticism about the ability of apology to atone for the past and address the plight of a victimised group is understandable. It is chimerical to think that the past is reversible. An injustice cannot be undone. Yet apology cannot so easily be dismissed as a hollow deed, empty and meaningless. Why would it be so difficult to obtain had it not been significant, one may wonder. Last week's apology by the Australian government was not the first official attempt to approach national reconciliation. The last administration led by John Howard failed to act on the findings of the Bringing Them Home report. The former prime minister argued that the present generation should not be held responsible for past wrongs and consistently refused to apologise, fearing an avalanche of lawsuits. What Howard did was to offer a statement of regret. That very nuance between "we say sorry" and "we are sorry" is at the core of what differentiates an apology as part of a reparations process from what is a worthless gesture. Unlike his predecessor's "regret", Rudd's apology was an act of contrition and recognition of moral responsibility, fulfilling much of what an apology should be. It was official; it spelled out the injustice, and announced a pathway towards further reconciliation measures.

Nonetheless, the act of contrition remains fragile, as does the reparations and reconciliation process Rudd has initiated. The Australian people understood this when in Canberra candles spelt out "Sorry the First Step" on the lawn of Parliament House. And although Rudd did issue an official apology, the prime minister dismissed any suggestion of financial compensation. Instead, Rudd outlined his intention to implement a rehabilitation programme aiming at closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between Aborigines and other Australians within a generation, as well as halving Aboriginal infant mortality rates within a decade.

In the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Israel is barely ready to express regret for the plight of Palestinian refugees and their current dire humanitarian conditions. But what the refugee community needs is not expression of regret, but open recognition of Israeli responsibility for its very existence. Indeed, the issue is not humanitarian at heart. It is political and concerns the recognition and remedy of injustice.

By saying sorry, Australia has stepped forward on the path towards reconciliation. The apology was attained because of efforts to provide evidence of the original injustice. Denials followed, replaced by reluctance to apologise. Time will tell whether reconciliation is fully achieved. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has hitherto not managed to establish even recognition of the injustice that lies at the core of the conflict. Without doing so, however, peace will not be possible.



Shahira Samy is Jarvis Doctorow Junior Research Fellow in International Relations and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East, St Edmund Hall and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. She specialises in the politics of reparations, displacement and the Arab- Israeli conflict.


View original & printable version



about us
| links | contact us | home | register

© 2008 Australians for Palestine &
Women for Palestine