By: Eleanor Dennis
Walking around downtown Windhoek, it is common to see streets named after German philosophers or musicians and finishing with “Strasse” rather than street. In the popular vacation town of Swakopmund, German-language bookshops outnumber English or Afrikaans shops, the architecture could be mistaken for buildings in Bavaria and it is even common to walk several blocks before hearing any language other than German spoken. Indeed, for a country twenty-eight years free from South Africa and over one hundred years free from German control, so many German colonial markers still exist in Namibia that on the surface it may seem like the wounds inflicted upon the Namibian psyche from German colonization have been healed– they have not.
The first colonial claim on Namibian lands came in 1797 when Britain occupied Walvis Bay, and for the next two hundred years Namibian territory remained under the control of different colonial powers. In 1883, German trader Adolf Lüderitz bought the coastal area that now bears his name, and from that moment on German troops were deployed and gained control of Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. While some of these details are known and spoken about in public discourse, many of the atrocities that occurred at the German’s hands in Namibia were left largely unaddressed and unknown by the international community. Thanks to a very important court case that is currently being litigated in New York, this has begun to change.
Genocide and the Reparations Debate
From 1904 to 1908, Germany committed genocide against the Nama and Herero people of Namibia in what the UN Whitaker report  has now acknowledged as one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century alongside the Ottoman massacre of the Armenians, the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust. The Herero people had commenced a rebellion against the German soldiers and settlers at the time and the German military ordered the extermination of their people as a result. Thousands of both Herero and Nama people were killed or driven out into the desert to die, and those who survived were interned in concentration camps around the country and systematically starved and worked to death. The result was the annihilation of 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama people in an extermination so massive the ramifications are still felt in these communities to this day, although no reparations have been paid to date.
The affected communities of this genocide have been seeking reparations for these atrocities for many years, but their efforts have been fruitless. In 2001 the Herero people filed a $4 bn lawsuit against the German government and two German firms, however their claims was dismissed on the grounds that international protection of civilians did not exist at the time of the conflict . It was only in 2004 that the German government formally recognized the colonial-era genocide and issued an apology  however they maintained that there would be no compensation for the affected communities. In 2015, the German government officially recognized the atrocities constituted genocide, but ruled out reparations again to the more than 100,000 victims .
This begs the question of whether Germany now recognizes the genocide as a crime under international law. While German politicians have acknowledged the genocide in a series of public statements in recent years, the state continues to submit legal documentation to the court that denies that the event constitutes genocide.
This brings us to today, when Herero and Nama chiefs have yet again brought a class action lawsuit  against Germany accusing the state of genocide, theft, and expropriation of property when Namibia was under German colonial rule. Their demand is simple: reckoning with colonial-era atrocities and reparations akin to what was paid to Holocaust survivors. What is interesting in this case is that it is being pled in New York in U.S federal court under the Alien Tort Statute established under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. This tort has been interpreted to allow foreign citizens to seek remedies in U.S courts for human-rights violations for conduct committed outside the United States in order to give a global remedy for breaches of international law (see Sosa v Alvarez-Machain case for more info).
The problem that their cause has encountered is one of jurisdiction, because the Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum precedent set in 2013 establishes that the Alien Tort Statute should not apply to crimes that do not touch and concern the U.S. In order for there to be a firm basis for jurisdiction in the US under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the Herero and Nama need to demonstrate that wealth derived from the property taken during the German colonial period has a direct link to commercial property in the US.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs Ken McCallion has put forth the central argument that the Kiobel case leaves the door open for U.S courts to gain extraterritorial jurisdiction over cases of genocide. He maintains that a number of German properties in New York were purchased as a direct result of the wealth accrued from slave labour and expropriation of property during the genocide. Furthermore, he has argued that the sale of genocide victims’ human remains to the American Museum of Natural History demonstrates a valid commercial link between the genocide and American Commercial interests. Germany’s lawyer has countered that the presence of skulls at the museum was the result of a private donation from a German anthropologist and not a commercial exchange and argues as a result that the U.S does not have jurisdiction over the case.
As of August 1st, 2018 the case has been adjourned by Justice Swain who will deliver a decision in the coming weeks. As more information becomes available, I will update this post with the results of the case.
Acknowledgement and Awareness
From the current court case to my experience during my 3.5 months in Namibia, an important theme arises for me as both an intern at the LRDC and a law student in Canada that may tie this blog post together. Living in Windhoek as an outsider who had the immense privilege of working in Namibia and meeting and forming bonds with the people there, the question of how useful acknowledgement really is came up for me time and time again.
In Namibia there are many young German expats living and completing internships and the reality of the extreme social and economic inequality is that German Namibians continue to hold a large percentage of the land and wealth in the country. The German government has acknowledged the genocide and provides generous economic aid for Namibia (which currently amounts to $14m per year ) however for Nama or Herero individuals who have been set back by the killings of their ancestors 100 years ago, these acknowledgements may fall on deaf ears. What does it mean to really acknowledge past wrongs? If victims demand reparations and are denied, does this deflate the acknowledgement?
There are many cases of reparations being won, and examples varying from the U.S paying reparations for Japanese-American internees to Canada agreeing to pay compensation to the residential schools victims  show that possible, though imperfect solutions do exist to begin to address past injustices. On the other hand, many reparations cases leave victims without any relief at all and reparations fall far from the only solution required to support victims and their communities.
Thus, more uniform and universal approaches are needed to address this issue and reduce the struggles experienced by the survivors and the families of victims in accessing reparations for mass atrocities. For the moment this will not help the Nama-Herero cause. What may truly help more than acknowledgement, however, is awareness.
Germany’s genocide in Namibia was forgotten for many decades by the international community, however this is beginning to change. In 2011 a popular book was published that has increased international awareness of the Namibian genocide called The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. In addition, the current case as well as Germany’s acknowledgements post-2000 have helped to increase international awareness of this issue and there is real hope that Nama and Herero families will receive compensation. The more this issue becomes discussed in the international community the more pressure will increase upon the German government to not treat Namibian victims differently than victims of the Holocaust and receive the compensation that they deserve. A genocide and victims forgotten, no more.