Namibia: Negotiating the Perpetrators of Genocide

Left column: German soldiers Right: Namibian prisoners chained (file photo).

Reference in this article is being made to the ongoing genocide negotiations between the German and Namibian governments.

In this negotiation process, the descendants of genocide victim groups are divided. Some have joined the Namibian government's efforts to negotiate. Others have launched a court case against the German government in New York in search of restorative justice.

The historical victim groups are not only the Namas and Hereros who were specifically the subject of Lothar von Trotha's Vernichtungsbefehl ("Extermination Order"), but also the Damaras, who were not directly mentioned in the extermination order.

They too were targeted by the German imperial forces in the same manner that Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin described the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jewish people. Reportedly, they too are planning to travel to New York to press for their case.

That the victim groups are divided not only makes it difficult for the Namibian government's case to negotiate, but also puts into question the government's basis for entering into negotiations with the German government. Words to the wise: Never enter into negotiations if your own camp is not united or does not have a common language to describe what it seeks in the negotiation.

Observers of this historical injustice saw the starts of the two governments' negotiation process as turning points in the process of finding justice for the 1904-1908 victims of the genocide. After years of denial, Germany finally softened in its approach to this matter. They noted.

A mistake of gigantic proportions! After several rounds of negotiations, Germany seems to have reverted to its original position of not acceding that what happened between 1904 and 1908 in the then German South West Africa are indeed acts of genocide. Arrogantly, Germany is now using the language of "atrocities" to avoid using the G-word.

What is the basis of continuing negotiating, if perpetrator Germany is insensitive to the victims, and shows no deep remorse? This is prompting me to ask: can victims really negotiate with perpetrators?

In criminal justice, a victim testifies against the perpetrator to ensure that justice is meted out, not sitting with the perpetrator at the same table to try to figure out if the perpetrator indeed committed the acts.

To me, negotiation is a lesser word for acts of genocide. Therefore, by entering into negotiations, have we not perhaps lessened the crime Germany committed to our people?

Lemkin's definition of the term genocide fits in well with Germany's crime against the Hereros, Namas and Damaras in Namibia. Evidence of systemic killings of members of the victim groups and causing serious bodily or mental harm to them are everywhere in historical books. Evidence shows deliberate actions of the German soldiers to inflict on the victim groups conditions of life calculated to bring about their total physical destruction in whole or in part, as well as forceful measures intended to prevent births within the victim groups.

Unequivocally, Germany's (in terms of the language, methods, and scale) Herero-Nama genocide fits in with other acts of later genocides committed around the world, including the horrors of the Holocaust, in which the Jewish people were systematically murdered.

In their quest to occupy the territory of the Herero, Nama and Damara people, the German colonisers not only shot and killed every Herero/Nama/Damara they came across, but also marched them into the arid desert, where they died of dehydration. They sealed the perimeter with guarding soldiers, and poisoned water sources.

Those who attempted to escape were bayoneted on the spot. And those who survived the desert were captured and sent to concentration camps for hard labour and further humiliation. In an undignified manner, the skulls of the dead were then shipped off to German museums for displays and eugenics research to prove that they were inferior to the white race.

These cannot be mere atrocities, as the German government is claiming today. By calling them atrocities, the Germany of today is actually protecting Von Trotha, and therefore becoming keepers of a horrible history, proportional to Nazism.

Von Trotha's acts are declared by the UN as a crime against humanity. A crime against humanity belongs in the courts of law. That's exactly what we have seen happening after the genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and in Sudan's Darfur, where president Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the international court of justice.

The West and all European powers were in unison, condemning and putting pressure for justice for victims of these genocides. Why is the first genocide being subjected to moral equivalence? Why is the offending German state being left off the hook from the wrath of the international community?

Perhaps, it is time Namibia put pressure through the mobilisation of international solidarity, and if need be, cut ties with the German government in order to mount diplomatic and legal action against the German state.

* Ndumba Kamwanyah is deputy director at the University of Namibia's centre for development and teaching and learning improvement.

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