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German apology to Namibia likely to be delayed

Daniel Pelz
August 1, 2017

Germany had promised an apology to Namibia for colonial-era genocide before general elections in September this year. But negotiations between both governments drag on with both sides failing to agree on key issues.

A file picture showing German soldiers in uniform in 1904
During colonial times, German troops put down the uprising of the Herero and Nama with brutal forceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

The German government's special envoy for the negotiations with Namibia, Ruprecht Polenz, has become rather cautious when it comes to making statements about the future. "I do not want to say at this stage when we'll reach the end," he told DW.

Since December 2015, both governments have been locked in negotiations about colonial-era massacres, carried out by German troops in the former colony between 1904 and 1908. An estimated 75,000 people are believed to have been killed after members of the Herero and Nama ethnic group rebelled against German rule. Germany responded with brutal force that included massacres, forced deportations and forced labor. Some sources put the death toll even higher.

Despite mounting pressure from civil society, Germany has so far failed to apologize for the crimes. Last year, the government used the term "genocide" for the first time for the crimes that were committed. 

Last year, a spokesman for Germany's foreign ministry had promised a joined declaration by both governments about the colonial-era massacres before Germany holds its general elections on September 24th. But at this stage that does not look likely.

"The talks are bobbing up and down," Namibia expert Henning Melber told DW. Namibia sent its demands to Germany in writing last year. The German response followed at the end of June this year.

A portrait picture of Ruprecht Polenz
Ruprecht Polenz is the German special envoy for the talks with NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's general elections will most likely further delay the talks - and a German apology for the genocide. Negotiations for a new coalition government could take months before a new government is in office. But Germany's special envoy Polenz tried to allay fears that this could derail the talks. "I do not see that any new government would make significant changes to the general line of negotiations," he told DW.

A setback for the German government?

Some experts think that the delay is a serious setback for the German government. "There is little trust left after two years of negotiations," said Jürgen Zimmerer, professor of African history at the University of Hamburg. Norbert Lammert, the speaker of Germany's lower house of parliament called it "a little bit embarrassing" last year that Germany had not apologized for the genocide.

Both governments seem unable to agree on key issues. The German government publicly ruled out paying reparations to Namibia even before the talks began. That apparently did not go down well with the Namibian side.

"It's part and parcel of diplomatic negotiations that both parties sit down at the table and pretend to be open to the positions of the other side even when they are not", Namibia expert Melber told DW. "But it's pretty foolish to publicly anticipate what is not possible."

The German government's chief negotiator Polenz rejects such sentiments. "I find it appropriate to clarify such issues from the beginning so that expectations remain realistic and don't put a strain on negotiations," he said. But despite mounting pressure from Namibia's government and civil society, the German government is still sticking to its position.

Herero and Nama representatives in front of a court in New York
Some Herero and Nama representatives have sued Germany in the USImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

"We do not view this question as a legal issue - and reparations are a legal term- but as a political and moral one," Polenz said. "That's not less significant, that is simply something different".

Discussions about reparations to continue

Germany is instead proposing indirect forms of redress. The German government wants to set up joint programs with Namibia that raise awareness about the genocide and its impact in both countries. It also offers to fund projects for energy supply, affordable housing and vocational training as well as assist the Namibian government in a land-reform program.

In earlier interviews, Polenz said that Germany had a moral responsibility to "heal wounds."

But that falls short of what the Namibian side wants.

"It's a term that tends to give Germany the tendency of feeling that healing the wounds would perhaps depend on a prescription by doctors in Berlin," Namibia's special envoy Zed Ngavirue told DW. "From our point of view, the definition of reparations in terms of their adequacy and their effectiveness cannot be based on a prescription decided by doctors in Berlin," Ngavirue said, adding that the talks were taking place in a cordial atmosphere and were making progress.

Another round of negotiations is supposed to take place in Berlin, but it's not clear when. Experts do not think that the talks will be concluded any time soon. 

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