Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

About this blog series

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. FriEnt's previous Radical-Critical blog series addressed the question if its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? The follow-up series goes further and asks if its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices are still valid against the backdrop of historic legacies like slavery or colonialism.

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Is Germany's apology for the Genocide in Namibia enough?

Namibia and Germany’s role as an imperial power
09. Juni 2022
| BP Miller on Unsplash

On Friday, May 28th, 2021, the German government apologized for its role in committing genocide in Namibia a century ago. More specifically, as reported by the BBC, the apology recognized that, as an Imperial power in Namibia, Germany was responsible for the killing, between 1904 and 1908, of tens of thousands of Ovaherero and Nama people, amounting to some 80% of the Ovaherero and over 40% of the Nama. Their land and livestock were also confiscated.

As societies around the world seek to confront violence committed in the historical past, the German apology is worth examining.

Seen through the field of Transitional Justice, we could assess the German apology by asking whether it contributes according to each of five general categories: (1) accountability; (2) truth; (3) repair (or reparations); (4) collective memory; and (5) non-repetition. Admittedly, there are no exact metrics for scoring along any of these dimensions. But we could at least determine whether an initiative should be rated high, medium, or low for each according to common understandings and global best practice.

Although examining the apology from each of these perspectives would be fruitful (my guess is that the score would be “low” to “medium”, at best, along most dimensions), this essay will focus only on the last of these, “non-repetition”. Is it likely that this act of contrition by the German state, a public acknowledgement of its role in crimes committed over a hundred years ago, will contribute to non-repetition of similar crimes in the future? Does the act of apology have a preventative element, somehow inhibiting crimes that might be similar enough or analogous enough to warrant the comparison?

The short answer is no.

First, if we take a very narrow definition of “non-repetition”— the idea that specific acts would not be committed again in the future – the question in this case seems almost absurd. After all, the course of history over the last century has already made it virtually impossible for the German state to engage in genocidal acts in Namibia in 2021 in a way that resembles the acts committed between 1904-1908. The apology may be icing on the cake of global geopolitical changes, but its contribution to the unlikelihood of repetition of these crimes is minutely small compared to other economic, social, and political forces at work.

How about if we take a more expansive view of non-repetition – one that examines the legacies of German imperialism in Namibia and focuses on the ongoing harms, today, resulting from acts committed and patterns, especially by Germany’s control of the Diamond Trade, established a century ago? From this perspective, the apology is deeply flawed in terms of its contribution to non-repetition.

Perhaps most importantly, the apology focuses on the genocidal events of a four-year period, while not fully acknowledging, much less trying to make amends for, the patterns of economic inequality, marginalization, and powerlessness that were established by German Colonialism itself. As Steven Press, the author of “Blood and Diamonds Germany’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa”, put it recently in an interview with me, “to commemorate the events of a genocidal moment is very different than to recognize the kind of long story of how people were deprived of land”. Although he considers the apology to be “very significant” and “more than symbolic”, he also recognizes that it is hardly a “thorough reckoning with the economic complications of land ownership”. In this sense, a vital missing piece of the puzzle is a serious reckoning with the diamond industry in Namibia and Germany’s role as an imperial power in establishing institutions and economic patterns that created long-lasting legacies of economic violence.

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