Wednesday evening, 25 February 2018, saw me moderating a public discussion under the title: ‘Genocide Matters’. The purpose was, primarily, to interrogate genocide issues contextualised within the current bilateral negotiations between the governments of Namibia and Germany. The ensuing discussion, as was expected, was very emotive and, at one point risked falling apart. One aftermath of the discussion is the accusation of bias levelled against me as a moderator.
This op-ed is aimed at clarifying my supposed biasness in the regard.
The allegation of biasness admittedly, in hindsight, holds some truth. As a staunch advocate and champion for human rights and believer of social justice, the issue of genocide concern me greatly. I, accordingly, sided with the call for restorative justice and reparations for the harm caused by the criminal conduct of the German colonialists towards the Ovaherero and Nama people. The allegation of been bias towards a particular ‘group’ is, however, devoid of all truth. I, generally, detest the idea of categorizing people and I shun from using public platforms to descend into the arena of ‘them versus us’ politics. It certainly didn’t happen during the said public discussion.
Amongst the pertinent issues raised during the public discussion related to 1) the framing of the crime, 2) linking Germany’s current development cooperation with Namibia to restitution, and 3) the effective and meaningful participation of the descendants of the victim communities in the ongoing bilateral negotiations between the two governments.
Space limitation dictates that I narrow my response to each of these. I will thus endeavour to clarify my apparent bias in respect of each of these issues as brief as possible.
It should be frowned upon when the perpetrator of a crime attempts to dictates to his victim on how to respond to his criminal conduct. Imagine a fraudster insisting that his victim be not so uptight about being defrauded of his hard earned income; similarly, the rapist expecting his victim not to feel so aggrieved about the violation of her dignity and bodily integrity occasioned through the vile act of rape. Such utterances and expectations are insensitive and lack remorse. The vile deeds of a criminal do not entitle him to any pedestal-like treatment.
The same logic applies to what the Germans colonialists did to the Ovaherero and Nama people. German hegemony should not be allowed to inform the framing of the crime, the pace of the current talks, and the quantum of damages sought, etc. Equally, Germany’s purported suggestion to refer to atrocities instead of genocide is insensitive, insulting and trivialises the suffering of victims of the Ovaherero and Nama genocide. It appears, that Germany is regarded, for all intents and purposes, as an equal partner in the current bilateral negotiations. This begs several questions: can the perpetrator and his victim really engage into talks on an equal footing? In other words, was it firstly, right to enter into negotiations with the German government on the issue of genocide? Negotiations presupposes that none of the intending negotiators has an existing claim – only a vested interest. This is not so in cases relating to claims of restorative justice though. I opine that the issue of the Ovaherero and Nama genocide begged for international arbitration. Alternative dispute resolution would, arguably, minimise German hegemony in the current genocide talks. As can be seen, I was indeed bias on the issue of German hegemony.
The involvement, representation, and inclusion of affected communities on matters that may affect them direct or indirectly are fundamental principles and standards of customary international law. This matter came up during the said public debate. Representatives of the victim communities are aggrieved for being sidelined and excluded from the ongoing bilateral negotiations between the two governments. They insisted that they didn’t waive their right to participate in the current talks. Politics aside, all representatives of the victim communities are entitled to their rightful place at the current negotiating table. This is not a privilege bestowed onto them by government. It is their inalienable right to self-representation. As the moderator, I aligned myself, unreservedly so, with this position and the call for inclusivity.
Development cooperation, cannot and should not be conflated with restitution. Development cooperation is given out of benevolence and not out of any legal obligation. Restitution, on the other hand, is a legal entitlement in pursuance of restorative justice. In the Namibian context, in pursuance of justice for the death of thousands of Ovaherero and Nama people at the hands of German colonial forces between 1904 and 1908. Germany’s financial contribution to Namibia ‘being the highest per capita in all of Africa’ does not detract or diminish the victim communities’ right to compensation. Restitution accrues to the descendants of the victim communities and to not all Namibians. The Germans know that. It is therefore insensitive and disingenuous of them to link their development cooperation to Namibia to the issue of genocide. My views on this issue during the public debate was unambiguous.
My stance on justice made it difficult to maintain neutrality on the issues raised. Seeking restorative justice for a century-old crime demands from all of us, especially those from the non-victim communities, to show solidarity for the cause of genocide. Justice demands nothing less!
John Nakuta lectures human rights law and administrative law at the University of Namibia (UNAM). He identifies as a social justice academic. This article is written in his personal capacity.