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8/5/15

USA: Obama: The Courage to Say 'We Were Wrong' - by José Ramos-Horta

Some months ago 11 other Nobel Peace Prize laureates and I co-signed an open letter to President Obama on the use of torture by the U.S. Two days ago I received a response from the President. (See both letters here.)

Most of Obama's letter contained information we already know. One of his first acts in office was to sign an Executive Order ending the CIA's illegal detention and interrogation program. He is working to close Guantanamo, an unenviable task that raises as many questions as it solves but still must be done.

These points are to be expected. But there was something else about this letter that stayed with me after I had put it down. The letter is an honest, candid communication. It is formal but frank, missing the political double-speak we have grown accustomed to from world leaders.

"We do not claim to be perfect," he said. "... In our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, although our Nation did many things right, some of our actions were contrary to our values. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA's former detention and interrogation program reinforced my view that these harsh methods were not only inconsistent with our values as a Nation but did not serve our broader national security interests."

In 40 years of dealing with presidents, prime ministers and other leaders, I could count on one hand the times I have heard a president or a prime minister or other high official speak candidly about the mistakes their country has made. It may be that I can count them on two fingers.

In 2008 Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the country's Aboriginal people for the Lost Generation of children, and the suffering inflicted by the government's policies.

A sincere and eloquent statement, it is the only time I can think of that a Western leader has apologized for the abominable treatment of indigenous peoples. I was also deeply impressed when I read then German President Richard von Weizsäcker speaking on German collective responsibility for the Holocaust in May, 1985.

Both statements stand out as great examples of wisdom and courage. But it is particularly difficult, and rare, for leaders to apologize when the mistakes were made for a good cause, such as preserving freedom.

The United States did not suddenly tumble from its horse as the world's leader in human rights by opening Guantanamo or waterboarding prisoners. U.S. involvement in coups, turning a blind eye to the resulting civilian massacres and other gross human rights violations during the Cold War are well documented.

As we are seeing in recent years with terrorism, the United States has not always been well equipped to fight a new kind of enemy, in this case a Viet Cong unit entrenched in a Vietnamese village, or a Communist ideology taking hold at the grassroots of strategic countries.

Read more: Obama: The Courage to Say 'We Were Wrong' | José Ramos-Horta

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