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Berlin unruffled by US lawsuit on colonial-era genocide

Daniel Pelz
January 6, 2017

Namibian indigenous groups filed a lawsuit against Germany in a US court on Thursday, demanding compensation for genocide by German colonial troops in the early 1900s. Berlin appears unperturbed.

Namibia Aufstand der Herero in Südwestafrika
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's special envoy for dialogue with Namibia, Ruprecht Polenz, told DW that he was "not surprised" by a lawsuit filed by Namibian activists in a US court on Thursday.

The class-action suit, filed by Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro and his Nama counterpart David Frederick, seeks reparations from the present German government for genocide carried out by German colonial troops in what is now Namibia more than a century ago.

Rukoro and Frederick are also demanding that their representatives be included in ongoing talks between Germany and Namibia, which are aiming for a joint declaration on their common past.

Polenz said that the lawsuit would not have any impact on the dialogue between the two governments at this stage.

"From the German government's point of view, the question of how to deal with the crimes that were committed between 1904 and 1908 is a political and moral question, but not a legal one," he told DW. "We are negotiating with the Namibian government about the political and moral consequences," he said.
It also remains to be seen whether the US court will have the necessary jurisdiction to deal with the suit.

The two plaintiffs are suing the German government under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law often invoked in human rights cases. However, the US Supreme Court narrowed the law's reach in 2013, deciding that it was presumed not to cover foreign conduct unless the claims sufficiently "touch and concern" the United States.

The activists' lawyer, Kenneth McCallion, told Reuters that the Supreme Court ruling did "leave the door open" for US courts to assert jurisdiction in genocide cases.

Up to 90,000 Herero and Nama are believed to have been killed by German Imperial troops in the early 1900s in what was then the German colony of South-West Africa. Successive German governments have refused to accept the atrocities as genocide. The present government only agreed to the description genocide in 2015, reversing its earlier position.

Namibia Genozid deutscher Truppen
Troops in German South-West Africa at the time of the Herero revolt in 1904Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

The dialogue between Germany and Namibia includes discussions about an official apology for the genocide. However, Germany has publicly ruled out paying reparations directly to present members of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups. It has hinted, though, that it would be willing to pay Namibia compensation from which the entire population would benefit.

Deutschland Ruprecht Polenz CDU EINSCHRÄNKUNG
Ruprecht Polenz is Germany's special envoy for dialogue with NamibiaImage: privat

Paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro rejects this proposal. His lawyer Kenneth McCallion told Reuters that his client was "concerned that a trickle-down theory of some compensation or an increase in foreign aid to the Namibian government might not directly go to the victims and the descendants of the victims which are the indigenous communities themselves."

Speaking to DW, German envoy Ruprecht Polenz insisted that it was right that the German government ruled out direct compensations even before negotiations were concluded. 

"The expectations of the negotiations were fraught with such perspectives from the start", he told DW. "The fact is that after World War II, Germany only paid personal reparations to individuals who personally suffered in the concentration camps or were forced to do slave labor." 

German opposition member of parliament Niema Movassat of "Die Linke" (The Left) party said the lawsuit was the "consequence" of the German government's refusal to enter into direct negotiations with the Herero and Nama.

"It is absurd to exclude a certain community from negotiations about a genocide that affected them. It is understandable that the people do not feel taken seriously," he told DW.