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Namibian Communities Deserve a Say in German Reparations Deal

True Reckoning Requires Involving Descendants of Victims of Colonial Era Abuses

Chiefs of the Nama and Ovaherero peoples during the annual ‘reparations walk’ in Swakopmund, Namibia, in April 2022, calling for reparations for the ongoing impact of the genocide committed by Germany’s colonial rule between 1904 and 1908. © 2022 OTA and NTLA

During Germany’s colonial rule in Namibia between 1904 and 1908, colonizers wiped out an estimated 80 percent of all Ovaherero and 50 percent of Nama people and seized about 80% of ancestral Nama land. The damage to the livelihood and identity of these communities has been passed down through generations.

A long-established principle in human rights law is that those impacted by human rights abuses should receive effective remedies to right wrongs. When it comes to Germany’s colonial-era abuses in Namibia, the German government has failed to get that message. By siding with Germany, the Namibian government has also failed its peoples.

A 2021 declaration between the German government and Namibia included a pledge of €1.1 billion in development projects paid over 30 years. But the people most affected by the legacy of German colonial crimes – the Ovaherero and Nama peoples – were never part of the negotiations and were only presented the final text of the reparations deal. Despite pressure, the German government told its parliament this month that it was not prepared to reopen the process.

It’s not only the German government turning a blind eye to giving the Ovaherero and Nama peoples a voice. In November 2022, Namibia’s Vice President Nangolo Mbumba demanded further talks to increase the amount of Germany’s pledge and institute a shorter payment period, but no mention of including these communities.

Germany asserts there is no legal basis for individual or collective reparations towards descendants of Ovaherero and Nama people affected by Germany’s colonial genocide. But human rights law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says otherwise.

On January 20, Namibian opposition and representatives of the Ovaherero and Nama peoples brought a case before Namibia’s high court, demanding Namibia renegotiate the joint declaration on reparations, which they claim violates a Namibian parliamentary resolution from 2006 that required a tripartite process on reparations that included descendants of victims of the colonial genocide.

While the court has yet to render a decision, this is an unprecedented legal challenge to an intergovernmental agreement addressing colonial crimes before a court of a former colony.

If Germany truly wants to right the wrongs of its colonial past, it can only do so if the people affected and their voices are at the center of the process.

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