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Germany

German Diplomat: We Need More Dialogue with Africa

Europe is paying more attention to both the potential and the problems of Africa. Deutsche Welle spoke with German Foreign Undersecretary Georg Boomgaarden about two nations with troubled pasts: Uganda and Rwanda.

A black and a white hand shaking

Will cultural exchanges bring Africans and Europeans closer together?

German President Horst Koehler and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have both recently returned from trips to Africa, where they pledged their support to the continent.

Deutsche Welle asked German Foreign Undersecretary Georg Boomgaarden about the situation in Uganda and Rwanda in particular.

Deutsche Welle: Horst Koehler recently made his fifth trip to Africa as Germany's president. What were your impressions?

Georg Boomgaarden: In Uganda and Rwanda, the president visited two nations that suffered for years of civil war and are still influenced by the traumas resulting from internal strife. So the trip was overshadowed by the past and the search for ways for these countries to find reconciliation and peace. I think it was a very political trip.

Reconciliation is considered a precondition for peace and development. Are Uganda and Rwanda examples of that?

I think it's too early to say. We spoke with representatives of the president and the civilian population, and we again saw how difficult the process is. It's just beginning in Uganda, and only time will tell whether it's a success.

By African standards, Rwanda has seen fairly good economic development. There's a respectable amount of growth. But the shadows of the past are still there. Together with President Koehler we visited a so-called Gachacha court, a traditional body that tries to combine legal justice and reconciliation. That's one possible path. On the other hand, there is the international Rwanda tribunal, which is looking at the 60 worst cases. I think it will definitely take a generation or more before the wounds will heal. The point now is to just co-exist in peace.

Traditional forms of justice sometimes have more to do with dealing with trauma than reaching legal decisions. To what extent can international law be hooked up with local tradition?

Boomgarden and Steinmeier

Boomgaarden, right, is deputy to Foreign Minister Steinmeier

I think we've been searching very intensively over the past few decades for ways of doing this. The cases were all very different, and the earliest was perhaps the Franco era in Spain. In Bosnia and Kosovo we also had cases where one part of a country's population attacked another one. And we've seen similar things in various African and Latin American countries.

Justice alone isn't sufficient to deal with the past. On the one hand, it's important to take away from those who rape women, kill children, burn down homes and commit acts of murder the sense of security that says there's always an amnesty, and no one will be punished. On the other hand, the desire for peace is enormous, as we just saw in Uganda, so that there's a tendency to sweep everything under the rug in the interests of harmony. They say: If justice leads to a continuation of war, then we don't want justice. Ultimately it's an insoluble dilemma. It's always a political decision when it's time for one approach or when it's time for the other.

The international community has a responsibility to prevent violations of human rights. Yet, in many cases, we have a hard time living up to this duty. In Rwanda, for example, the international community allowed genocide to go on for more than 100 days. Why can't we react more quickly?

One problem is that we Germans represent 80 million people out of a total of 7.5 billion. It would be a bit arrogant to think that we Germans could force the rest of the world onto the path to virtue. But that doesn't change what you were saying. In Rwanda, the international community failed in a very scandalous way. The only thing comparable, and that on a much smaller scale, was our failure in Srebrenica, and both gave us lots to think about. It gave rise to the idea that in such extreme and clear cases the international community has to feel responsible politically and intervene. If a million people are being massacred, it's no longer one nation's internal affair. On the other hand, in every individual case, we have to look at what we can do and whether we have the right instruments for it. In the case of Rwanda, the UN should never have withdrawn. It should have intervened. That is absolutely clear. But it's another question whether the UN can simultaneously intervene in all the conflicts going on in the world without over-stretching itself.

Köhler with children in Uganda

Uganda is another African nation with which Germany wants closer ties

As you mentioned, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has pursued an ambitious program of development. But is not the other side of the coin a relatively authoritarian stance toward domestic politics, and especially toward the media?

In the end, the people in the countries themselves have to decide. In Rwanda, I had the feeling when we talked not to the government, but to journalists and people on the margins of power, that they thought more freedom for the press would be a good idea. On the other hand, the same people said: "Don't forget that the press played a huge role in the genocide." Back then radio stations broadcast messages like: "Kill your neighbors. There are people from other ethnic groups. Massacre them, chop off their heads." And if this is the role of the press, then I understand why fears persist.

Germany has been very present in Africa and is increasing its activities there. Why is that?

You only need to look at the map. Africa is a huge continent with gigantic problems and a population of 900 million people. If things aren't going well, and Africa can't cope with its own problems, they hardly have a choice but to solve them by exporting them to us. The problem of illegal migrants actually brought us closer to Africa. Another thing is that we are encountering more and more nations in Africa with a healthy sense of self-confidence. They're increasingly following their own policies, and in the future we'll be increasingly connected to them by the need for natural resources and other interests.

In terms of development, we've been active for a long time in Africa. But in 2008 we're beginning a special program. We'll be opening new Goethe Institutes in Dar es Salaam and Luanda, that is in Tanzania and Angola. And the Goethe Institute will also be represented in Rwanda in the form of a field office of the Goethe Institute in Nairobi. That signals that we're looking for more dialogue with Africa. We hope that with cultural exchanges of this kind we'll be better able to master crises by talking to one another.

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