Namib­ians seek jus­tice

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of com­mu­ni­ties af­fected by the 1904-1908 geno­cide have filed a class ac­tion against Ger­many in the US de­mand­ing repa­ra­tions

African Independent - - NEWS - HEIKE BECKER

EP­RE­SEN­TA­TIVES of the com­mu­ni­ties di­rectly af­fected by the 1904-1908 geno­cide in Namibia have taken the Ger­man gov­ern­ment to court in New York. The plain­tiffs are su­ing Ger­many for dam­ages to be paid di­rectly to the de­scen­dants of the Ova­herero and Nama geno­cide sur­vivors.

In 1904 and 1905, the Ova­herero and Nama of cen­tral and south­ern Namibia rose up against colo­nial rule and dis­pos­ses­sion in what was then called Ger­man South West Africa. The re­volt was bru­tally crushed. By 1908, 80 per­cent of the Ova­herero and 50 per­cent of the Nama had died of star­va­tion and thirst, over­work and ex­po­sure. The army drove sur­vivors into the wa­ter­less Oma­heke desert. Thou­sands more died in con­cen­tra­tion camps.

On Jan­uary 5, Ova­herero chief Vekuii Rukoro and head of the Nama tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties David Fred­er­icks filed a class ac­tion law­suit in New York. They are in­vok­ing the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 US law of­ten used in hu­man rights cases. The case was brought to court in the US be­cause it al­lows law­suits that ad­dress claims on be­half of en­tire com­mu­ni­ties.

If the case suc­ceeds, it will be sig­nif­i­cant for claims from other geno­cides com­mit­ted be­fore the UN Con­ven­tion on the Pre­ven­tion and Pun­ish­ment of the Crime of Geno­cide came into force in 1951.

In 2004, Hei­de­marie Wiec­zorek-Zeul, then Ger­many’s Min­is­ter of De­vel­op­ment Co-oper­a­tion, at­tended the Herero geno­cide cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions. In her speech she of­fered an os­ten­si­ble apol­ogy but this was later re­tracted by the gov­ern­ment in Ber­lin. How­ever, in July 2015, a Ger­man For­eign Min­istry spokesper­son ad­mit­ted “the war of ex­ter­mi­na­tion in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and a geno­cide”.

For the past year, of­fi­cial Namib­ian and Ger­man en­voys have been talk­ing about the way ahead. The ne­go­ti­a­tions have

Rbeen com­pli­cated and con­tested. Although Ger­many has of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged the geno­cide, a for­mal apol­ogy is still out­stand­ing.

Most con­tro­ver­sial is the is­sue of repa­ra­tions, which the plain­tiffs in the US case are claim­ing from the Ger­man gov­ern­ment.

Ger­many has ruled out di­rect repa­ra­tions, pre­fer­ring pay­ments to the Namib­ian gov­ern­ment in the form of for­eign aid.

Rukoro and Fred­er­icks are seek­ing an or­der from the court re­quest­ing that, as the law­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “peo­ples” di­rectly af­fected, they be in­cluded in ne­go­ti­a­tions and set­tle­ments be­tween Ger­many and Namibia. Ova­herero and Nama vic­tim groups have ob­jected to the fact tha talks are tak­ing place with­out del­e­gates from their com­mu­ni­ties.

But Ger­many has in­sisted it won’t ne­go­ti­ate with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the groups. Ger­man en­voys only talk to the cen­tral Namib­ian gov­ern­ment. The Namib­ian gov­ern­ment has also in­sisted that ne­go­ti­a­tions only be be­tween the two gov­ern­ments.

In their joint state­ment, is­sued on Jan­uary 5, the chiefs charged that the Namib­ian gov­ern­ment could not ad­e­quately rep­re­sent the in­ter­ests of the Ova­herero and Nama as “in­dige­nous and mi­nor­ity” com­mu­ni­ties. Their le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive sug­gested if repa­ra­tions were paid in the form of for­eign aid, they might not reach the af­fected com­mu­ni­ties.

At is­sue is Namibia’s frag­mented his­tory. The coun­try’s dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive of an­ti­colo­nial strug­gles em­pha­sises the role of the once exiled Swapo and, to a lesser ex­tent, the north­ern Namib­ian ex­pe­ri­ence of the 19661989 lib­er­a­tion war against South Africa. The early re­sis­tance against Ger­man colo­nial rule in south­ern and cen­tral Namibia is af­forded a neg­li­gi­ble place in the coun­try’s his­tory.

Soon after in­de­pen­dence in 1990, peo­ple in the south­ern and cen­tral re­gions com­plained de­vel­op­ment ef­forts mostly reached Swapo’s heart­land in the coun­try’s north. Herero and Nama speak­ers con­tend that in­fra­struc­ture is only de­vel­oped in re­gions dom­i­nated by Owambo com­mu­ni­ties. Swapo had its his­tor­i­cal roots among Oshi­wambo speak­ers.

It took un­til 2015 for the first non-Owambo, Hage Gein­gob, to take of­fice as pres­i­dent.

Ef­forts have been made by Ova­herero and Nama to stake their right­ful place in the coun­try’s his­tory of anti-colo­nial re­sis­tance.

In re­cent months geno­cide vic­tim groups have be­come more vo­cal and per­sis­tent. They are de­mand­ing an in­clu­sive process un­der the slo­gan “not with­out us”. In Oc­to­ber an in­ter­na­tional civil so­ci­ety congress, un­der the ban­ner “Restora­tive Jus­tice after Geno­cide”, brought to­gether over 50 Herero and Nama del­e­gates and Ger­man sol­i­dar­ity ac­tivists in Ber­lin to dis­cuss the way for­ward.

They held pub­lic protests and Herero and Nama del­e­gates held a press con­fer­ence in the Ger­man Bun­destag.

The law­suit filed in New York sends a strong mes­sage to Ger­many and the Namib­ian gov­ern­ment that ne­go­ti­a­tions “with­out us” re­main un­ac­cept­able for those whose an­ces­tors were killed in the geno­cide.

The Ger­man gov­ern­ment has said that the gov­ern­mentto-gov­ern­ment ne­go­ti­a­tions will con­tinue in their present for­mat.

The plain­tiffs, on the other hand, are op­ti­mistic that in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law will be on their side.

If the case suc­ceeds, other claims for geno­cide dam­ages could fol­low, in­clud­ing some from in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the US, which were dec­i­mated dur­ing coloni­sa­tion. – The Con­ver­sa­tion Africa

Heike Becker is pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy, Univer­sity of the Western Cape


BONE DEEP: A man takes a photo dur­ing the han­dover of 20 skulls to Nam­bians in Ber­lin, Ger­many, in 2011. The skulls of vic­tims of geno­cide early last cen­tury had been taken to Ger­many for re­search.

PROTEST: Mem­bers of the Coun­cil for Di­a­logue about the Geno­cide of 1904 march in Ber­lin, Ger­many, in 2011. The Ger­man and Namib­ian gov­ern­ments are cur­rently in talks about the geno­cide.

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