Saying We’re Sorry: Historical Justice, Katyn, Canada and Rwanda

Statue of Reconciliation, Stormont

Statue of Reconciliation, Stormont Ireland (Photo: DennisDeery)

Overcoming the injustices of the past does not come easy. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, Aboriginal peoples have sought a sense of justice with greater political representation and protection of their traditions after colonial brutality. With the support of many western states, Armenians have long attempted to officially establish that Turkey perpetrated genocide against the Armenian people in the early 20th century. In Cambodia there have been attempts to better understand the horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule and bring those most responsible for atrocities to justice.

Seeking reconciliation over past injustices is an arduous process. Many of those most directly affected by past atrocity and brutality don’t live to see the day when some form of justice is served. It took many years over wrangling and arguing with the international community for Cambodia to establish a Court to try senior officials of the Khmer Rouge and, given the government’s reluctance to wholly embrace international human rights standards, it is still uncertain what capacity of reconciliation will be possible there. In Canada, despite what is generally recognized as a earnest and impressive apology by the government of Canada in combination with significant reparations, many natives, especially those who choose to continue in live in traditional communities, have markedly worse conditions than the average Canadian citizen. Social difficulties, including alcoholism, suicide and drug use, remain well above average. Turkey continues to refute any claims that it committed genocide in Armenia, going so far as to pass legislation that prohibits the insulting of “Turkishness”, which many view as an attempt to silence internal critics supportive of Armenian claims.

Most states in Eastern and Central Europe have had a tremendously difficult experience in reconciling the events of the 20th century.  Former communist European states, for example, have had highly-charged, emotional debates over how to make available files from domestic intelligence agencies. On the one hand there are those who believe that justice can only be served if the whole truth is established and it is irrelevant if this pits family, friends and neighbours against each other. Others suggest that the informant files cannot possibly tell the whole truth. They argue that, for example, files may not indicate whether a given informant supplied information as a result of duress or threat rather than voluntarily or in seeking some reward. It is a passionate debate that in many cases remains unresolved leaving some unsatisfied in their thirst for historical justice.

Poland is no exception and an especially interesting case in that much of its contemporary history has been sharply influenced by attempts to reconcile and establish the truth regarding a particular instance of historical injustice: the Katyn massacres. In 1940 over 20,000 Polish soldiers, police officers, intellectuals, and professors were murdered, primarily in the Forest of Katyn. That includes my own great grandfather. In 1943, the Nazis found the mass graves in Katyn. However, while it was evident that the crimes had been committed by Soviet forces, a politically-inspired campaign of denial was instituted. Allied states, for whom the USSR was a key ally in the war, were not willing to publicly apportion blame on the Soviets despite having sufficient intelligence to know that it had been a Soviet-conducted massacre. The USSR denied any responsibility maintaining that it was the Nazis who had conducted the massacre.

Polish prisoners of war

Polish Prisoners of War, captured by the Soviets in 1939. At Katyn over 20,000 Poles were killed including officers, political officials, and academics

During the Cold War, the truth of the events at Katyn and elsewhere were buried but never far from the national imagination of the Polish people. Seeking truth about, and justice for, the massacres was a powerful point of national grievance in resistance movements and attempts to overthrow communist rule. Pressure for an admission of culpability grew with Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, or “openness” in the 1980s. In 1990, fifty years after the massacres, Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet Union had ordered and perpetrated the massacre.

Katyn has long influenced Polish-Russian relations, both during the Cold War and since. Given the recent death of the Polish President and host of military, cultural and academic leaders on their way to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Katyn, it isn’t likely to be far from the hearts and minds of Poles any time soon. It was an important step towards reconciliation when both Russian and Polish Prime Ministers were present at an earlier commemoration ceremony. In a bitter sense of irony, the tragic death of a similar cross-section of Polish society last week as was killed in Katyn may serve to bring justice for what happened to Poles even closer to reality.

The question remains, however, if reconciliation can be possible without an apology from those responsible. Russian PM Vladimir Putin stopped short of apologizing for what occurred in Kaytn, something that many Poles have long hoped for. Putin also maintained he would not open additional archives or provide the names of perpetrators, read by many as an impediment to the establishment of truth.

Willy Brandt kneeling

Perhaps one of the most powerful acts of repentence came when Willy Brandt, German Chancellor, spontaneously knelt in front of a monument to Jewish Victims in the Warsaw Ghetto

While it has become common place for leaders to acknowledge past wrongs, with some notable exceptions, there is often no actual apology. The words “We are sorry” are not declared. Instead, there tends a statement to the effect that “We regret what happened.”

Earlier this week, Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean, traveled to Rwanda, the scene of a genocide in 1994 which claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. where she declared that: “The world’s failure to respond adequately to the genocide is a failure in which Canada – as part of the international community – readily acknowledges its fair share of responsibility.” On the face of it, many would accept that her words were part of an apology, and indeed, it was initially perceived as such. Very quickly, however, the Prime Minster’s Office clarified that it was not an apology but an “acknowledgement”. French President Nicholas Sarkozy, when visiting Rwanda, also acknowledged “mistakes” by the international community but did not apologize.

Rwanda skulls

The skulls of victims of the Rwandan Genocide which claimed an estimated 800,000 people in 1994. Many international political leaders have expressed "regret" or "acknowledged" the atrocity but not apologized. (Photo: The Dilly Lama)

So, why not simply apology for past wrongs? For some, it is theoretically dubious for an individual, in this case a political leader, to apologize for something that he/or she did not commit to a population which did not directly experience the injustice. Others, with an ethical persuasion, claim that apologizing for injustices of the past universalizes morality trans-historically and question whether this is appropriate. More practical views suggest that leaders are wary that an apology is an admission of guilt which can be used to make the state legally liable for past wrongs.

Of course, it is questionable whether the above views matter much when societies continue to harbour resentment and are incapable of some closure as time passes. Taking the Polish example, again, Katyn does not simply affect Poles’ view of the past but also the future. Without reconciliation and the establishment of truth, many find it difficult to see how the memory of Katyn will not continue to affect Polish politics, and perhaps not always in a constructive manner or in Poland’s own interest.

Historical justice is a difficult beast to contend with. It is laced with emotion and expectation. It includes a view to past pain and shapes the expression of future possibility. In the end, whether or not historical justice can be served, may depend on leaders’ willingness to say: “We are sorry.”


Originally published at

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Apologies, Armenia, Cambodia, Canada, Europe, Historical Justice, Poland, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Saying We’re Sorry: Historical Justice, Katyn, Canada and Rwanda

  1. Tomasz Lachowski says:

    Dear Mark,
    I’ve just recently found your website. Since I am the PhD Candidate at the University of Łódź (Poland), currently preparing my PhD dissertation on the issue of ‘Transitional Justice in Public International Law’, I am just delighted to go through, at least, some of the articles/ essays you’ve posted. Its somehow ‘funny’ that as a first one I read your post on the Katyń Massacre and its consequences for the Polish society just in time of its anniversary.
    I am wondering, do you see any possible mechanisms that can be applied in order to achieve reconciliation and – according to your words – the establishment of truth in case of Katyń? Notably, having in mind that some, let’s say ‘grassroots’ or ‘quasi-official’ endeavors were carried out by the Polish side (e.g. the work of the mixed Polish-Russian team and its outcome, the book: ‘Białe plamy – Czarne plamy. Sprawy trudne w relacjach polsko-rosyjskich (1918-2008)’, (ed.) Adam D. Rotfeld, Anatolij W. Torkunow) or the pending case (II instance) before the European Court of Human Rights?
    Undoubtedly, the biggest efforts are taken by Poles to acknowledge (by use of the legal means) the Katyń Massacre as a genocide, instead of a war crime, what is not accepted by Russians.
    Nevertheless, the website is really good and I’m sure I’ll visit it again.
    Pozdrawiam z Łodzi!
    Tomasz Lachowski

  2. Mark Kersten says:

    Dear Tomasz,

    Many thanks for the very kind and generous reply.

    I don’t think there will be justice in the sense of criminal justice or even a Truth Commission. But the work to identify and bring forward exactly what happened and why is a form of justice through acknowledgement. The denial of accountability in the case of Katyn, however, is something that certainly has inspired my interesting in international justice. So too has the work of my historian grandmother, Krystyna Kersten, who worked to identify those who perished, including her father.

    If you would ever want to write about Katyn, do let me know.

    Thanks again!


  3. Hello,

    maybe this will be relevant for this discussion about searching for justice, truth and reconciliation: . The context is in particular the Katyn crime.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s