The New York Court and Namibia

Namibia taking Germany to court in a country with its own history of genocide against indigenous peoples, hoping they may honor the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Herero during the German colonial period. Image via Wikimedia.

In July 2015, the German government acknowledged, in an as yet informal way, the genocide perpetrated by German colonial troops in present day Namibia during 1904-1908. Negotiations between the two governments commenced in November of that year. Today this process is at an impasse for a number of related reasons: the German side refuses to consider any material transfers a legal obligation following from the genocide, while in Namibia, there is consensus that an apology as well as reparations are a prerequisite to reconciliation. At the same time, both the German and the Namibian governments insist on bilateral state-level negotiations, while affected communities vociferously demand to be included in a “round table.” By now, the negotiations are also implicated in the movement for ancestral land that has gained new momentum in Namibia since late 2016. It appears that all these issues need to be addressed for a settlement to enjoy acceptance and legitimacy.

In Namibia, the negotiation process is in the public limelight. The German public and mainstream media hardly notice it. This vast difference is hard to accept or even to imagine particularly for Namibian activists, and consequently is often understood as an active refusal to acknowledge historical facts. While this has doubtlessly been the case in the past and remains to a considerable extent, another reason for what I consider as postcolonial asymmetry seems to be both more effective and intractable.

Let us rehearse basic figures: Namibia’s population of 2.3 million contrasts Germany’s 82 million; its Gross Domestic Product of US$ 11.49 billion is dwarfed by Germany’s US$ 3879 billion; in foreign trade volume, Namibia ranks as Germany’s partner No.116. By mere numbers, Namibia has very little leverage on Germany. Most Germans can easily afford to ignore their country’s colonial past including the genocide. They do not feel any impacts if they are not alerted or look out for them. Very many are not even aware that Germany once was a colonial power. Concern for some 15,000 German speakers in Namibia is not evident in the German public.

For people from Central and Southern Namibia, the opposite is the case. Vestiges of German colonialism are ubiquitous, in an array of colonial buildings and monuments, now used as tourist attractions; in the presence of an economically highly privileged and powerful, closely-knit community of German speakers; and in particular, in a persistent pattern of land distribution that is a direct consequence of the genocide. In continuation of the genocide, all affected African communities were stripped of their land. This was turned into crown land and opened for white settlement, first from Germany, after 1915 from South Africa. The landscape was thoroughly rationalized according to the needs of commercial agriculture. This remains evident in wide road corridors, fenced-in farms and spaces devoid of people and animals.

Affected communities in Namibia have kept the memory of anti-colonial resistance and of the genocide alive. Shortly after independence in 1990, a movement set in to claim apology and reparations from Germany. By now, they have coalesced into a strong voice and the government has taken up the demand, although serious controversy remains about the modalities of the negotiation process. Nevertheless, the genocide is a public issue in Namibia, and this has also been evident from big turn-outs to mark important events such as the crowd of 4,000 that stormed Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek in 2011 to welcome the return of a first batch of human remains that had been deported to Germany during colonial times.

Awareness raising for the genocide remains an uphill affair in Germany, mostly taken up by small postcolonial initiatives in league with sections of the Afro-German community. These initiatives have managed to generate some attention in national and international media at special turning points, but their impact remains limited, as is the pressure such civil society moves or any opposition party can hope to bring to bear on government policy.

So far, the German government is sticking to its guns: apology as an outcome of negotiations, no reparations, limiting the negotiation process to the two governments. The last two points form the substance of the Class Action Complaint brought by Ovaherero and Nama and to be given an initial hearing by a New York judge on March 16. The need to resort to legal action is yet another consequence of postcolonial asymmetry and the stubborn recalcitrance on the part of those who seemingly can afford such a stance precisely on account of such asymmetry. And so the globally peripheral take their case to the “center” in hope that a court in a country with its own history of genocide against indigenous peoples might honor the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

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