UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Perpetrator Accountability: How the Recognition of the Herero Genocide is Essential for Post-Colonial Reconciliation and Ongoing Human Rights Crises

By Kayleigh Thompson, UNA-NCA Senior Advocacy Fellow

Paramount Chief Adv. Vekuii Rukoro, high-ranked chiefs and other members of the Herero and Nama communities gather around a monument in honor of the Ovaherero and Nama people that were victims of the genocide by German colonial forces at the Swakopmund Concentration Camp Memorial, in Swakopmund, Namibia, as a part of the Reparation Walk 2019 on March 30, 2019. | Getty Images

The issue of genocide recognition and denial has challenged the international community since Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin first coined the term in the wake of the Holocaust. On the 106th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide President Joe Biden officially recognized the mass atrocity as a genocide, becoming the first US President to do so after decades of avoiding the term in the interest of preserving a strategic partnership with Turkey. This declaration was a major step in recognizing and holding accountable the perpetrators of genocide and in promoting global recognition of the mass atrocity that killed almost 1.5 million people. A little more than a month after Joe Biden’s announcement, Germany also made a significant move in genocide reconition, formally recognizing the lesser known genocide against the Herero in Namibia, whose victims have spent decades fighting for reconciliation and perpetrator accountability.

The Herero genocide, which killed tens of thousands of indigineous Herero and Nama people under German colonial rule in South West Africa (current day Namibia), is widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century. On May 28, 2021, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas officially recognized the act as a genocide after concluding negotiations with Namibia that began in 2015. Foreign Minister Naas additionally committed €1.1 billion in development aid.

The recognition of the atrocity as genocide is a significant move in regards to post-colonial accountability, as the European power had previously issued an apology, but had ruled out formal compensation or official recognition. The action sheds light on the responsibility of colonial powers to answer for mass crimes committed under their rule and for the international community to properly evaluate whether these crimes constitute genocide. Similar atrocities recorded in the Belgian Congo, French Algeria, and British colonies have gone either unacknowledged by both the perpetrator nations and international organizations or have only resulted in apologies for “atrocities” versus recognition of, and reparations for, acts that constitute genocide or other crimes against humanity.

With ongoing humanitarian crises in China, Myanmar, and Iraq, the recognition of past genocides is an essential step the international community must take to maintain both the legitimacy of legal statutes against genocide and the international pressure to hold perpetratorsaccountable.

Setting the Narrative Straight: Germany’s First Act of Genocide

The Herero Genocide lasted from 1904 to 1908, during which time an approximated 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people were systematically killed by German colonial authorities in Colonial South West Africa, or present day Namibia. The genocide was a response to the Herero-led revolt of January 1904 and the subsequent Nama revolt in October, both of which attempted to protect indigineous land from colonial usurption. The German military, led by General Lothar Von Trotha, responded to the revolt through the use of Vernichtungspolitik, or a policy of total destruction. Violent fighting broke out until August of 1904, when German military forces pursued the Herero people into the Omaheke Desert, where thousands died of dehydration and malnutrition. This was followed by Von Trotha’s notorious extermination order, Vernichtungsbefehl, in October, which declared that all Herero people, regardless of age or gender, would be killed if they were found within German colonial borders.

Throughout the next several years, tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people would be massacred or brought to concentration camps, in which 40% of prisoners died of starvation, dehydration, and inhumane treatment. By the conflict’s end, approximately 85% of the Herero and Nama population had been either killed or driven out of their native lands, which Kaiser Wilhelm II had fully claimed as German South West Africa by May 1907.

Images of survivors of the Herero genocide foreshadowed similar scenes from the liberation of Nazi death camps (Smithsonian Magazine)

Despite German propaganda and backlash against Von Trotha’s ruthless policies in Berlin, The UN’s Whitaker Report of 1985 determined that the organized tactics specifically aimed at exterminating the Herero and Nama people — which are heavily reminiscent to those later utilized in the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ during the Holocaust — did meet the criteria of genocide outlined in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention defines the act as one with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This recognition by the UN is significant, as the international organization has a history of drawn out recognition processes and superficial definitions, with only three recognized genocides successfully being brought to trial under the convention. Despite the findings of the Whitaker Report, the German government refrained from using the term “genocide” until 2004, when Develpment Aid Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul issued an apology on the 100th anniversary of the atrocities.

Until this year’s agreement, the Namibian government and the descendents of the Herero and Nama people had long sought reconciliation and reparation aid from the German government. In 2001 and 2017, descendents of the Herero filed multiple lawsuits against the German government and German firms in the United States, citing the Alien Tort Statute, a law that allows US federal courts to hear lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of international law. However, all claims were subsequently dismissed on the grounds of the 2013 Supreme Court Ruling Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which states that courts cannot rule on a case that does not “touch and concern” the United States.

Aside from the 2004 apology, the descendents of General Von Trotha offered their own apology in 2007, and since 2015, the German government has been in negotiations with Namibia over how to best make amends, which included the commitment to return the remains of Herero and Nama people that had been used in pseudo-scientific eugenics studies to Namibia in 2018. The negotiations over reparations and reconciliation efforts have been met with significant criticism from Herero and Nama descendent groups who claim that important tribal groups are being left out of the conversation and that the agreement is instead a “cover up” to fund Namibian government projects. The Namibian government themselves has also criticized the reconciliation efforts as being insufficient, rejecting an initial reparation offer in 2020, stating that the offer of €10 million was “not acceptable.”

The 2021 agreement comes as a final compromise to these negotiations, with the German government formally recogizing the crimes commited against the Herero and Nama people as genocide and pledging €1.1 billion in development aid. The use of the term development aid is a specific move to avoid the term “reparation,” which had been “a term of contention” between the parties, as Germany has historically been reluctant to use the term in negotiations with Namibia.

However, this final agreement does not come without backlash and criticism, with several traditional Namibian chiefs cited as rejecting the deal while Namibian scholars claim that the development aid is not a significant change from existing German development aid contributions. One such scholar, Zoé Samudzi, states in Time Magazine that “any conception of reconciliation in this moment is simply a way for Germany to absolve itself, and to not have to think about the ways that this genocide was incredibly formative for a lot of other German state violence.” Her statement emphasizes both the discontent with the agreement and the link between the Herero genocide and the atrocities the Third Reich committed during the Holocaust which took place only two decades later. Germany has paid over $80 billion in reparations to Holocaust victims as a result of the 1952 Claims Conference Agreement and has expanded the funding since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. The reluctance to do the same for victims of the Herero genocide emphasizes criticisms of the 2021 agreement and bring with them the questions of what proper accountability looks like for former colonial powers and how best to move forward with post-colonial reconciliation efforts.

Reconciliation: Why Perpetrator Accountability is Essential

Reconciliation between former colonial powers and the nations they colonized can be labeled as a performative action that may still cause strain within an oppressed community. The German reconciliation efforts with Namibia are only one example of reparation demands from post-colonial states and the reluctance of former imperial powers to meet them. In May of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged France’s “overwhelming responsibility” for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in a move that has been considered part of an attempt to “wipe the colonial slate clean.” However, France has notably “ruled out” formal apologies as part of reconciliation efforts, despite demands from the descendants of former French Algeria, who cite over a century of harsh rule. In Belgium, King Philippe offered his “deepest regrets’’ for the crimes committed by Leopold II in the Congo, but has not offered an official apology or formal reparations. This reluctance to formally acknowledge and apologize for crimes committed under colonial rule significantly limits reconciliation efforts. The trend of former colonial powers sending their regrets but stopping short of formal apologies in order to preserve their own image does little to satisfy the victims, who find these statements to be more in the name of improving a perpetrator’s image than achieving actual reconciliation. As Zoé Samudzi states in reference to Macron’s visit to Rwanda, “we just saw France, not apologizing for what it did in Rwanda, but already asking for forgiveness.”

The offer of development aid as a form of pseudo-reparations also brings its own challenges in the reconciliation movement. Providing the aid without acknowledging the direct impact of European exploitation upholds traditional imperialist ideals, such as white man’s burden, which is the perception that Europe and the United States had a duty to colonize non-white nations in order to “civilize” them in the Western image. Additionally, this form of aid can reinforce the perception that people of the Global South are inherently less capable of achieving sustainable development without significant aid from the West. The avoidance of the term “reparation,” in Germany’s agreement with Namibia, despite agreeing to reparations of Holocaust victims, and the reluctance of other formal European powers to fully acknowledge and integrate their wrongdoings under colonialism into the mainstream historical narrative further blurs the line between the truth behind instability in former colonized states and the existing myth of colonized people being inherently lesser, an idea heavily steeped in racism.

While no amount of money will atone for the crimes committed against colonized peoples, fully acknowledging them and agreeing to direct reparations to the descendents of the victims not only is a statement of accountability on behalf of the former colonial power, but also legitimizes the criminal statutes against the crimes themselves. Reluctance to use the term “genocide” is a tactic used to avoid having to pay reparations or be held accountable by the international community, with perpetrators instead using the terms “mass atrocities” or “crimes against humanity.” Additionally, international organizations may substitute the term to avoid the responsibility of intervention. Substituting the term “genocide” for a lesser crime downplays the gravity of acts that directly aim to destroy a group based on specific identity. The denial of genocide by perpetrator groups and their allies is a deliberate action to avoid the consequences of committing the crime, and as a result, questioning the legitimacy of defining an act as genocide has become common practice. As seen in the example of the Armenian genocide, where Turkish denial and recategorization of the crime as “atrocities comitted during war time” paired with strategic influence in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eurasia has stunted the international recognition of the crime and actively threatens progress towards reconciliation for Armenians.

The act of former colonial powers recognizing the crimes that meet the criteria of genocide as genocide adds important legitimacy to both the UN Genocide Convention and international law, specifically in regards to holding perpetrators accountable for reparations or reconciliatory efforts. With the ongoing human rights violations that have been cited as possible genocides in places like China and Myanmar, it is especially essential to uphold international pressure to condemn the crime and hold perpetrators accountable. The recognition of Germany’s crimes against the Herero and Nama as genocide and the continued demands of former colonized states to issue formal apologies and reparations are critical steps in continuing to uphold accountability for perpetrators, both past and present. Going forward, supporting genocide recognition movements and continuing to offer support for organizations such as International Criminal Court and UN resolutions against ongoing human rights violations must be an essential component of preventative action against future crimes. Genocide cannot be prevented if it is not recognized.

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