The Role of Apology in International Law and Diplomacy

43 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2006 Last revised: 4 Aug 2010

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: August 4, 2010


There has recently been a striking and widespread use of governmental apologies as a way of rectifying or atoning for past historical injustices, such as past wartime atrocities, racial or religious discrimination, or the abuses of colonialism. This apology phenomenon has elicited extensive comment. Less scholarly attention has been paid, however, to the use of governmental apologies to resolve the more current international incidents and disputes with which foreign office diplomats and international lawyers are typically concerned. This article addresses the role of apology in the more usual conduct of international diplomacy and resolution of international differences, as well as its broader role in the international law of state responsibility.

Among the questions discussed in the article are: (1) What do we mean by an apology? (2) How prevalent is the use of apology in the conduct of diplomatic practice and what are some recent examples of such apologies? (3) What role does apology play as a formal remedy in the international law of state responsibility? (4) Can apologies influence the development of international law or otherwise have normative consequences? (5) Is the role of apology in international relations the same as in interpersonal or other contexts? (6) Why do governments apologize - or not apologize? (7) Does the recent proliferation of governmental apologies for historical injustices suggest that apologies are now likely to play an important part in how governments deal with current kinds of diplomatic problems and international differences as well? 8) Does apology deserve a more important part in our toolbox of international dispute resolution techniques? and (9) More broadly, what is the likely future role of apology in resolving international incidents, grievances and disputes?

Keywords: apology, diplomacy, international law, international relations, U.S. foreign relations, state responsibility, international dispute resolution

JEL Classification: N40, K10, K40

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, The Role of Apology in International Law and Diplomacy (August 4, 2010). Virginia Journal of International Law, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 2006, Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1028, Available at SSRN:

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

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