The Forgotten Genocide, Part Two

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Part 1 of this series explored what happened to the Namibian people in 1904 at the hands of German colonizers. Yet in 2018, a century since the genocide occurred, the Herero and Nama people are still fighting for the recognition and reparations they deserve. Part two of this series will explore this process; looking at what has been achieved, what needs to happen, and how you too can join in the fight for recognition.

The Journey So Far

Germany recently returned around 25 skulls of deceased Herero, which had been sent over for racial experimentation and testing. This is indeed a huge step, and could not have been achieved without the work of activists. However, it has been a long fight to get to this point.

In 2001, the Herero brought a case to the U.S. District Court Alien Tort Suit. This is an extremely old law that allows federal courts to hear lawsuits filed by non-U.S. citizens, for mass human rights violations committed outside the US. The Herero did not just sue the German government but also the Deutsche Bank. They held the bank responsible for the genocide due to the financial assistance they provided the German government at the time of the violence. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was not a success.

It was not until 2004—exactly 100 years after the genocide—that the Herero and Nama made some headway in their battle. German Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul apologized for the crime, recognizing that “the atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.” Despite this step toward progress, the government ruled out any form of reparations for the descendants of families who had been killed.

Although their first lawsuit was unsuccessful, the Herero filed another suit in the U.S. in 2017. This time, Herero Chief Vekuii Rukoro and his Nama plaintiff, the late David Frederick again used the Alien Tort Suit as their defense. Aside from the genocide, this lawsuit brought up another issue. While the German government continues to refuse reparations, it alluded to potentially issuing compensation for the entire population of Namibia. Sounds like progress right?

Unfortunately, no. Not much progress has been made. Giving out blanket compensation is not an adequate form of reparations. There would be no guarantee that the money would directly reach the families of the Herero and Nama people who suffered. In fact, it sounds more like an attempt at giving aid rather than specifically providing reparations. It avoids genuine accountability and shows a lack of understanding for what the Namibian people are trying to achieve.

What the people want:

Let’s examine what the Herero and Nama are asking for.

  1. Direct compensation for the victims of those murdered, as explained above.
  2. Land acquisition. As outlined in part one, the people were stripped of their properties and rights even after the genocide. This snowballed into generational poverty as the inability to own land or sustain incomes directly impacted generations of Herero to come. They want access to land that is rightfully theirs, but their population is so low that the Namibian government is under no pressure to guarantee this.
  3. To be included in reparation talks. As it stands, German negotiations have not included any Herero or Nama in their talks; a rather incredulous position to take.
  4. To apply the N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as grounds for compensation, acknowledgment and safeguarding of their culture.
  5. To gain not just an official apology, but actual recognition for the crimes committed. Herero and Nama ethnic identities were almost obliterated and while apologizing may be a step forward, it is certainly not enough. We have witnessed trials for crimes against humanity in Nuremberg, the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal Yugoslavia, and International Criminal Tribunal Rwanda, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Yet there has been nothing of this sort for the Namibians, no attempts at actually healing the divide and offering closure. Of course, this is not a simple issue to resolve as the perpetrators have long passed. However, that does not mean this issues should simply be ignored.
  6. Remove German monuments in Namibia symbolizing their colonial rule. See here for more details.

The Argument Against Reparations:

Getting the events of 1904 classified as a genocide has been a long and tiresome battle. Now the real question is whether Germany is liable for those actions. The arguments against this are:

  • Germany has already given millions in international aid to Namibia over the years.
  • Some Scholrs such as David Bargueño argue that International law absolves successor states from responsibility for international crimes committed by their predecessors.
  • The Namibian government does not support the legal action taken by the Herero activist group. The government argues that not all Namibians suffered at the hands of German colonizers and that the German government has since entered into a special relationship with independent Namibia that would be disturbed by these reparations.
  • Genocide did not technically exist as a crime in 1904, nor were such colonial practices illegal. Should Germany be held accountable by current laws, or by the laws of the time? The crimes may be horrendous, but it has been argued that Germany is not legally
  • There is a fear that granting reparations to the Herero people could set the precedent for other groups seeking reparations for colonial damages. Former imperialistic nations would have to answer for crimes committed decades, possibly even centuries ago.

The Arguments For Reparations:

There are, however, many loopholes in the above arguments.

  • The word genocide was not created until after the Holocaust – a crime so horrific it did not yet have a name. By that decree, did the Jewish people not deserve the compensation they received because the word itself did not yet exist? Of course not.
  • It is not incredulous to say that the Namibian government has its own self-interests to protect in refusing to support the Herero’s court case. If the Herero win, the money given would go directly to the group – not to the Namibian government. Given that the Herero are now such a small minority, it has been easy for the government to ignore their claims and reap the benefits of German aid without redirecting it to the Herero people.
  • Authors like Sarkin and Fowler persuasively argue that the UN Convention on Genocide does not create the crime, but merely confirms its existence. If one affirms a situation as genocide, they are obligated to follow the rules and guidelines set out in the Convention to which Germany is a party. Germany may have acknowledged there was a genocide, but little else has been done.
  • This is not the only incident of a country looking for genocidal reparations pre-1945. The Armenian people shared a settlement of 20 million under similar circumstances and continue in their battle for compensation.
  • Lastly, Herero activists have been drawing parallels between the genocide in Namibia and that of Germany’s during WWII, arguing they were the precursor—or “blueprints” if you will—for the Holocaust. There is much evidence to support the argument, showing that research conducted at the time in Southwest Africa served as the primary basis for the subsequent policy of forced sterilization in Nazi Germany. This is not to say that the Namibian genocide and the Holocaust were the same. Rather, it makes for a persuasive argument that the demands of the Herero should be given serious consideration given the later actions of 1945 constituted the very notion of genocide. This certainly adds huge validation for seeking compensation.

ACTIONS: How You Can Help

  • Show your support by watching and encouraging others to watch the documentary “Skulls of My People,” available for free here.
  • Share this informative video from VICE news.
  • Use your social media accounts to share a post and demand the German government issue fair reparations for the Herero and Nama people.
  • Read and share this article which identifies the long-lasting problems caused by the systematic raping of Namibian women by German colonizers, and how this still impacts current generations of Namibians.

Support or contribute to these campaigns or groups:

Twitter:

  • You can Tweet your message of support, such as: “justice for the Herero and Nama people #Ovaherero” Or “colonial genocides cannot be ignored #justiceforherero #justicefornama”
  • Tweet your support to Namibian activists like Esther Muijangue and Herero chief Vekuii Rukoro using #Rukoro