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Reparations Claims by the Herero and Nama Against Germany

posted by Mitu Gulati

About two years ago, in 2017, an intriguing lawsuit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act in New York. It was filed by members of the Herero and Nama tribes for the genocide of their ancestors that took place in what is now known as Namibia. In March this year, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who readers of this blog may know from the Puerto Rican financial drama, ruled that the claims against Germany were barred by that nation’s right of sovereign immunity. As an aside, having oversight of the Puerto Rican debt debacle is not Judge Swain’s only connection to sovereign debt lore – she also sits in the judgeship vacated by none other than Judge Thomas Griesa of pari passu infamy. For accounts of the above mentioned class action by the Herero and Nama, see here and here. (Lawsuits on roughly similar grounds had been attempted earlier as well; see here).

This outcome is probably not surprising for anyone who has followed the fate of human rights litigation over the past few years brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Basically, under the direction of the Supreme Court, the possibilities for victims of human rights violations that took place overseas to foreigners with no more than minimal connections to the US (in terms of the claims themselves) have been severely curtailed.

My reason for bringing this up is that this is a history that I knew little about until I started coming across references to the genocide in Namibia in accounts of the Congo where, similar horrors were taking place in the 1890s and early 1900s under King Leopold of Belgium (Joseph Blocher and I have been working on the question of contemporary implications for international law of the transfer of control that took place after the genocide in the Congo (here)). Still though, these references didn’t give me anything close to a sense of how horrific things had been there.

That is, until I came across this case and began reading the filings in more detail. And one of the most interesting pieces I’ve found is by German scholar Matthias Goldman that both uses original archival research to describes the events that took place and uses them to question our contemporary understanding of the law of sovereignty. The law of sovereignty, as with all of customary international law, is based on assumptions (often faulty – as Matthias shows in this case) about history. The article, “The Entanglement of Property and Sovereignty in International Law”, is short and eminently readable (here). Matthias, who many slipsters know because of his work on sovereign debt matters, has not only been writing on the topic of the genocide in South Western Africa but has also been involved in the court case (he filed an affidavit in the Herero and Nama lawsuit).

I hope that Judge Swain’s decision is not the end of the road for the claims of reparations by the Herero and Nama. Maybe they will have better fortune with a filing in a German court?

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