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Is Germany being hypocritical by prosecuting foreign war criminals?

People protest outside a ceremony in Berlin, Germany, August 29, 2018, to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama . REUTERS/Christian Mang

People protest outside a ceremony in Berlin, Germany, August 29, 2018, to hand back human remains from Germany to Namibia following the 1904-1908 genocide against the Herero and Nama . REUTERS/Christian Mang

Published Jan 23, 2022

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OPINION: Germany may have issued an apology to the descendants of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia last year for the genocide its officials carried out, but it has failed to make appropriate amends from the perspective of the victim’s families, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

Germany is the first country to prosecute state-sponsored torture in Syria despite the fact that Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council from giving the ICC jurisdiction to try cases.

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In a landmark judgment widely publicised on January 13th, a former member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate (the mukhabarat), Anwar R, became the most senior former Syrian government official to be convicted abroad for serious crimes in Syria.

Prosecutors accused him of overseeing the torture of detainees in his capacity as head of investigations at “Branch 251,” prior to his defection to Germany in 2012. He was charged with 4,000 counts of torture, 58 killings, rape and sexual assault. The judges found him guilty of committing crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. More than 80 witnesses testified, including former detainees.

The trial of Anwar R and that of a lower level Syrian official, Eyad A, was possible because Germany’s laws recognise universal jurisdiction over certain of the most serious crimes under international law.

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That allows for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims.

Three years after Anwar R. had defected to Germany, he had walked into a police station in Berlin and filed a complaint that he believed that Syrian government operatives were following him and he feared being kidnapped.

At the bottom of the complaint, he signed his name using his former military title – Colonel. This led German authorities to investigate his own role in Syria before his defection.

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Germany prides itself on prosecuting such cases of gross abuses of human rights, and it had started investigating crimes in Syria since the uprising in Syria began in 2011.

While Germany is hailed by human rights activists for the doggedness with which it pursues such cases, it begs the question: “Why has Germany been so reluctant to own up to its own role in gross human rights abuses in Africa in the past?”

Germany may have issued an apology to the descendants of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia last year for the genocide its officials carried out against them between 1904 and 1908, but it has failed to make appropriate amends from the perspective of the victim’s families.

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The genocide of the Herero and Nama people at the hands of German colonial officials was the first genocide of the 20th century and killed 80,000 people.

The Herero and Nama had resisted German efforts to take their land and cattle, and General Lothar von Trotha had been dispatched to quash the rebellion. He had a fierce reputation in Asia and East Africa. In October 1904, he signed an extermination order.

Berlin had authorised its colonial officers to use machine guns, rifles, cannons and bayonets to massacre unarmed men, women and children. As reported in the New York Times recently, families were forced to flee into the scorching Omaheke desert, where troops poisoned their water holes and soldiers killed parents in front of their children.

Von Trotha then confined the Herero and Nama to the first concentration camps of the 20th century, and just as was done to the European Jews in World War Two, the victims were transported to the camps in cattle cars after they were tattooed and issued numbers.

The Herero and Nama were then forced into hard labour and subjected to medical experiments. Some were sterilised, others injected with arsenic and opium or deliberately infected with smallpox, typhus and TB.

A separate camp was even set up for the purpose of sexual violence. German officers shot, hung or starved to death the victims in the concentration camps, killing tens of thousands of people.

In total, eighty percent of the Herero ethnic group and fifty percent of the Nama ethnic group were killed in the most barbaric manner. Hundreds of skulls of victims were sent to Germany to be studied, and there is no question that the genocide of the Herero and Nama foreshadowed Nazi ideology and the Holocaust.

It was in southern Africa that Eugen Fischer, later a prominent Nazi eugenicist, pioneered the pseudo-science about “racial hygiene” used to justify the slaughter of people Germans saw as an obstacle to ‘Lebensraum.’ While the two genocides were different, the methods and motives were similar.

The difference in approach to the victims in these genocides was quite different. Seven years after the Holocaust, in 1952, West Germany signed an agreement with 23 Jewish organisations and the Israeli government to pay reparations for the material losses suffered by Jewish individuals and people.

In the years since, school curriculum, museums, and memorials have placed the Holocaust at the centre of national remembrance. But in the case of the Herero and the Nama, Germany only acknowledged 113 years later that it had committed genocide.

Only last year did Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier travel to Namibia to issue a formal apology before the country’s parliament and ask the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.

Germany offered $1.35 billion (R20.5 billion) for reconstruction and development projects, health care and training programs over the next three decades.

The reality, though, is that this sum is comparable to German development aid to Namibia over the past 30 years. More concerning was the fact that the negotiations with the Namibian government excluded the Herero and Nama people themselves.

The Herero and Nama leaders dismissed the deal between the German and Namibian governments as a “public relations coup” because it did not include funds deemed “reparations”.

Namibia had pressed for describing the money as “reparations”, but Germany rejected the term as they said it would have amounted to acknowledging guilt under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. The Germans argued that the convention could not be applied retroactively to past genocide.

If Germany is so quick to use its own courts to investigate and convict foreign perpetrators of human rights abuses committed in other countries, it should be just as willing to own up to its role in the genocide in Africa and make the appropriate amends after consulting with the families of the victims.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor at Independent Media.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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