UN representatives criticise Germany over reparations for colonial crimes in Namibia

UN special rapporteurs have criticised the German and Namibian governments for violating the rights of Herero and Nama ethnic minorities by excluding them from talks over reparations for colonial crimes against their ancestors.

Publishing their communication with both governments, the seven UN representatives urged Germany to take responsibility for all its colonial crimes in Namibia – including mass murder – and said it was wrong for the Herero and Nama to have been involved indirectly in talks via an advisory committee. They called on Germany to pay reparations directly to the Herero and Nama and not to the Namibian government.

The special rapporteurs have concentrated on getting to the bottom of suspected contraventions of international law. They were assigned the roles by the UN human rights council as independent experts, but are not being paid by the international body. Governments cannot be forced to act on their reports. However, they are seen to have a strong influence.

At the heart of the matter is the brutal murder of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908 when Germany was the colonial power in what was then German South West Africa.

In January, lawyers in Namibia operating on behalf of the Herero and Nama submitted a claim to a Namibian court, urging it to declare the “joint declaration” between Germany and Namibia invalid as it contravened various articles in the Namibian constitution. If the claim is successful the agreement would have to be negotiated anew.

The governments in Berlin and Windhoek agreed the declaration in 2021 after years of discussion. However, it has never been signed because of its rejection by several Herero and Nama associations, who demanded a direct participation in the negotiations, as well as reparations. Agreement had been made on German payments of about €1.1bn (£1bn) over a period of three decades to finance development projects.

In February, the rapporteurs dispatched their letter expressing “grave concerns” over violation of international law to the German and Namibian governments, granting them 60 days to respond, within which timeframe the letter would remain confidential. The German government acknowledged the significance of the rapporteurs’ work and asked for an extension. The Namibian government has so far failed to respond.

In their letter, the rapporteurs said Berlin must acknowledge its responsibility “for the crimes carried out during its era of colonial rule”, adding that the agreement failed to include any effective reparation measures or the necessary means for reconciliation.

Berlin’s plans for reconstruction and development programmes were insufficient to compensate the victims and their descendants for the “scale of the damage that was done to them”. That included the harm suffered as a result of the mass killings, including “starvation, torture, gendered violence, forced labour and loss of property”, the effects of which are felt today. They said development aid as a form of reparation was also in danger of “perpetuating rather than rectifying, colonial dynamics”. They were also critical of the way in which the negotiations had been kept secret.

Karina Theuer, an expert in international law and an adviser to lawyers in Namibia, said it would be necessary to start a new negotiation process. She told the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “This must be transparent and in compliance with legal minimum standards.”

In February, Gaob Johannes Isaak, the chair of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, told the Guardian: “Reparations would bring back dignity, self-worth and play a meaningful role in our own development and education for the Nama people so we can share equally in the resources of Namibia.”

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