2017/05/17

Why Namibian chiefs are taking Germany to court



The Herero and Nama peoples are seeking reparations for the 20th century’s first genocide
IN 1904 the Herero people of modern-day Namibia rose up against German colonists, who had seized and settled much of their land. The response of the German army, imbued with racist ideology, was to annihilate them. “Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot,” ordered General Lothar von Trotha, its commander. Some Herero died at the hands of Trotha’s soldiers; many more perished after being pushed into the desert or herded into concentration camps. Historians estimate that 80% of the Herero lost their lives; about half of the Nama died after launching their own revolt. It was the 20th century’s first genocide. Some of the Herero and Nama leaders have now filed a lawsuit against Germany in a New York court. The lawsuit talks of 100,000 deaths. What are their demands?  

Such wrongs cannot be undone. But victims of injustice, or their descendants, sometimes seek financial reparations for historic crimes. In 2001 the Herero and Nama tried unsuccessfully to sue the German government and three German companies, under an American law called the Alien Tort Statute which allows foreign cases to be pursued in American courts. They had little support from their own government, which favoured diplomacy instead (it didn’t help that some Herero leaders were prominent in opposition politics). Namibia is now in talks with Germany to draft a common statement on the genocide. But some of the Herero and the Nama complain that they are excluded. In January they brought a fresh case, demanding a seat at the table. 

They face an uphill struggle. The Supreme Court has made it harder for American courts to hear foreign cases. And the Germans are loth to pay compensation decided by an international court, preferring to offer greater development aid; they say they already give more per head to Namibia than to any other country. Although the Namibian government is hoping for a hefty sum of money (or its equivalent) as a result of negotiations going on between the two countries, some Herero and Nama leaders worry that little of that would reach their communities. 

There are precedents for reparations, say the Namibians: Germany has paid billions of dollars to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust. America has compensated Japanese-Americans who were interned in the second world war; Britain has belatedly done the same for Kenyan Mau Mau rebels tortured under its rule. Some of the land taken during the Namibian genocide is good farmland; most of it is grazing country. Reparations might help the Herero and the Nama to buy some of it back.

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