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Namibian activists want to take Germany to court

Daniel Pelz, Berlin May 24, 2016

Namibian activists insist on direct negotiations with the German government over the genocide of 1904. The government says no - now the activists want to go to court. Their move is a sign that frustrations are growing.

Three men in chains.
Activists commemorate the genocide of 1904 during a ceremony in Namibia.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

Bob Kandetu is a man who has clearly run out of patience. Herero leaders had resolved to "take the bull by the horns", the spokesman for the Ovaherero Traditional Authority grumbled. The activists want to take the German government to court. "Germany must now face the real threat of a long drawn out arbitration process," Kandetu said.

If the Ovaherero Traditional Authority gets its way, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could soon become involved in the dispute over how to deal with a dark chapter of German history in Africa.

After a failed uprising by members of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in the then colony of German Southwest Africa, German troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha brutally massacred more than 80,000 people between 1904 and 1908. For decades, different German governments refused to recognize the mass killings as genocide.

Only last year, the speaker of Germany's parliament, Norbert Lammert, called the atrocities "genocide". To date, Germany has not formally apologized for the crimes.

Namibia and Germany are currently negotiating recognition of the genocide and a possible apology at government level. The talks are set to conclude by the end of the year. If both parliaments agree, Germany would apologize for the crimes committed. Germany and Namibia are also set to agree on a number of measures focusing on raising awareness of the genocide in both countries.

A historic photo of German soldiers in Namibia.
German imperial troops killed more than 80,000 people in the genocideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

'No confidence in either government'

"The talks between the federal government and the democratically elected government of Namibia are progressing in a constructive manner and an atmosphere of mutual trust," Germany's Foreign Ministry told DW in a statement.

But Herero and Nama activists, like the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, are a lot less enthusiastic.

"We do not have any confidence in the German or the Namibian government anymore. They simply ignore us," Herero activist Israel Kaunatjike told DW.

Kaunatjike supports the Ovaherero Traditional Authority's demand for direct negotiations with the German government.

"We are the people concerned, the descendants of the victims," Kaunatjike said. He wants the Namibian government to act only as a "referee".

While the German and the Namibian governments have ruled out direct negotiations with the activists, the opposition Left party has called for the involvement of civil society in the talks.

A historic photo of German soldiers in Namibia.
German imperial troops killed more than 80,000 people in the genocideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Gebert

"The important question is: Are the descendants of the Herero and Nama victims going to be included in the agreement between the two governments? They have made clear that they are not going to accept an apology that was agreed without them. That would be a disaster," Left party member of parliament Niema Movassat told DW in March.

A matter of money

One reason why the Herero activists are now becoming more aggressive in their push for direct negotiations with the German government is the fact that one of their most important demands does not seem to be on the table of the official negotiations.

"We're certainly going to get an apology, but what about reparations?" Kanautjike asked.

Germany has ruled out direct payments to Hereros and Namas.

Speaker of German parliament Norbert Lammert.
Norbert Lammert, speaker of Germany's parliament called the mass killings "genocide" in 2015Image: Imago/J. Schicke

"There is no basis for compensation claims under international law," Germany's Foreign Ministry insists. Instead, Germany has chosen an indirect form of compensation - development aid to Namibia is considerably higher per capita than to most other countries in Africa.

Now Herero representatives want to take their demand for direct negotiations to the next level. They want to take their case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The court provides a variety of dispute solving services to the international community. But so far, lawyers for the Hereros have not filed their case - and when they do, it is also not certain whether the court will agree to examine it.