Germany alone cannot define genocide

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Pronouncements that have recently been trickling in from the Federal Republic of Germany with regard to the recognition by its authorities of the atrocities committed by Imperial Germany starting 1896 up to 1908, and especially between 1904 and 1908, have been met with mixed reactions.

Coming shortly in the wake of the centenary commemoration of the end of German colonialism in Namibia, they started with the declaration by the President of the Bundestag (German Parliament), Dr Norbert Lammert. He was quoted by one of the German publications mid-July as having written that what happened in Namibia during the era of Imperial Germany’s reign, especially to the Ovaherero and Nama, is genocide.

“If the genocide against the Armenians during the Ottoman empire in 1915 is described as such, the crime of the military powers against the indigenous people of Namibia in the former German South West Africa must also be described as such,” Die Zeit quoted Dr Lammert as having said.

“Measured against the criteria of the law of nations (international law) the suppression of the uprising of the Herero was nothing but genocide,” he is further quoted as having written. He was followed in his apparent recognition of the said atrocities in Namibia (then German South West Africa) by spokesperson in the German Foreign Office, Martin Schaefer.

“German authorities are moving toward officially recognising as ‘genocide’ the colonial-era crackdown in Namibia by German troops more than a century ago in which over 65,000 ethnic Hereros were killed. Talks with Namibia on a joint declaration about the events of the early 20th century are ongoing and it isn’t clear when they will be concluded,” Schaefer was quoted as having said.

He was also quoted as having added that “the basis for the German government’s approach is a parliamentary motion signed three years ago by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stating that “the war of destruction in Namibia from 1904 to 1908 was a war crime and genocide.” Steinmeier was an opposition leader at the time and the motion was not passed.

The reaction to all these developments from within Namibia, especially from within the Genocide and Reparation movement ranged from an outright no-reason for excitement kind of attitude, to a more cautious ‘light at the end of the tunnel” and “to every cloud there is a silver lining” reaction.

In some circles of the Genocide and Reparation movement in Namibia, the response has been categorical that in the recent pronouncements there can only be excitement if such came from either the Bundestag through a motion to that effect, rather than from individuals, as it has been so far. And such must be pronounced by the “highest” political office.

The latter reaction is understandable, because while such pronouncements may be genuine and forthright, and those who have made them are people with integrity, at the same time they have not been devoid of ambiguity to be meaningful or to excite any hope and/or expectation.

The said pronouncements and/or interpretations of the said pronouncements by the Press Officer of the German Embassy, Ulrich Kinne, has not been of much help either in deciphering the messages, and/or fueling any excitement regarding the admissions of genocide.

Confirming the German government’s intention “to recognise the extermination of the [Ovaherero] and Nama people between 1904 and 1907 as genocide, Ulrike, however, was quoted in the Windhoek Observer newspaper as saying that the “Angela Merkel administration would only recognise the genocide in a historical sense and not in a legal sense, as many had anticipated”.

This is categorical of the position of Berlin all along on this matter, and should not come as a surprise. Nor can this be a matter purely of interpretation by Kinne. But with hindsight and perhaps to give Kinne the benefit of the doubt, the Genocide and Reparation movement has not been under any illusion that Germany would ever submit willingly and freely to any international legal definition to its predecessor imperial government’s activities in colonial Namibia as genocide.

And for that matter defining such in a legal sense is not a matter for Germany herself but a matter of international law. It is enough that Germany is recognising that, yes, politically, what happened was genocide. But for Germany to admit and submit to such in international law, cannot and should never be taken for granted as magnanimity on its part, because international law defines and recognises such atrocities as war crimes.

By the same token whether Germany had, pursuant to such recognition, any legal obligation is not a matter for her to define and decree, because the actions of its predecessor government must be defined by international law.

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