Human Rights Politics

Germany’s obligation under international law to make reparation payments to the Ovaherero for genocide

It is almost unanimously agreed upon that between 1904 and 1908 the German Empire committed genocide after today’s understanding (in the following “genocide”)[1] against the ethnic groups of Ovaherero and Nama in what today is Namibia,[2] as approximately 60,000 to 100,000 people – 80 % of the Ovaherero and 60 % of the Nama population – were killed.[3] The victims were driven into the Omaheke desert to die of thirst[4] or were deported to concentration camps, facing forced labour and medical experiments with often deadly endings.[5]

It was only in 2015 that Germany recognised the genocide[6] and until today, there have been no payments of reparation. This raises the question to which extent Germany can be obligated under international law to make such reparation payments for the genocide, using the Ovaherero people as an example.[7]

Such obligation requires a breach of international law and a court to claim the breach.

Breach of applicable international law in 1904

The international law in force in 1904 can be separated into codified law and customary law.

Codified international law

There are three main institutes of codified international law that could have been breached.

Firstly, the German empire and the Ovaherero concluded a so-called protection treaty in which the German empire promised to extend protection to the Ovaherero people.[8] Considering the German Empire’s sovereign control over the Ovaherero in 1904,[9] the treaty however was obsolete, as the Ovaherero were no longer a nation subject to international law.[10]

Secondly, African codified legal frameworks could have been breached, but as African perception of law at that time consisted of a non-positivistic approach, codified frameworks did not yet exist.[11]

Lastly, European codified legal frameworks could have been breached. While all relevant frameworks – the 1864 Geneva Convention, the 1885 General Act of the Conference at Berlin and the 1899 Hague Convention – were violated,[12] it is questionable whether the conventions were applicable between the German Empire and the Ovaherero. In principle, international conventions and treaties are only binding on signatory states.[13] As the Ovaherero were no party to any of the conventions, the only way to apply them would be via third-party beneficiary rights. While this is being discussed especially regarding the 1885 General Act of the Conference at Berlin,[14] it is not plausible that the conference’s parties – European colonial powers – intended such rights, as constant legal evaluations would have slowed down the intended expansion of colonial power.[15]

In conclusion, German Genocide did not breach codified international law in 1904.

Customary international law

Customary international law that could have been breached requires a shared opinio iuris and repeated state practice[16] prohibiting genocide.

While such opinio iuris might have existed in African international customary law,[17] neither European opinio iuris nor European state practice existed. Even though some European authors at that time regarded so-called wars of annihilation and thus genocide as violation of international law,[18] they excluded native tribes,[19] such as the Ovaherero. The Marten’s clause in the preamble of the 1899 Hague Convention – by some considered to be the origin of the concept of “crimes against humanity”[20] and thus as indication of a prohibition of genocide – did only incorporate existing customary law into the convention without specifying its content,[21] consequentially not indicating such opinio iuris. If new law would have been created by the Marten’s clause, literature at that time would most definitely have discussed this development, which is not the case.[22]

Therefore, customary international law was not breached, as well.

Moral correction of the legal vacuum

In consequence, German genocide took place in a legal vacuum.[23] This vacuum could however be filled by general moral rules – natural law[24] – that the German Empire should have respected.

Such general moral beliefs exist in all of mankind – and thus also in the German Empire and the Ovaherero – and most certainly include a prohibition of murder and thus of genocide.[25]

These moral beliefs should also be used to morally correct the legal vacuum in the case at hand. The absence of a prohibition of genocide forms such grave injustice, that moral must overrule legal certainty – a strictly positivistic approach to law is no longer bearable.[26]

While the direct application of an abstract moral belief seems difficult, one suitable way to transfer it into a potential Ovaherero claim is to retroactively apply the 1948 UN Genocide Convention – which even Germany – at least indirectly – acknowledged to have been breached.[27] Considering this general moral belief prohibiting genocide, Germany is not worthy of protection against the retroactivity.[28]

Thus, the German genocide against the Ovaherero breached the – based on moral deliberation retroactively applied – 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

Suitable Court for a claim

Finally, it must be assessed, how the Ovaherero could claim this breach.

A claim in Namibia is barred as Germany would not accept the jurisdiction of Namibian courts.

Claims in front of German courts based on § 839 I Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB) and Art. 34 Grundgesetz (GG), constituting German state liability for misbehaviour of German officials, face the problem that neither Art. 34 GG nor comparable norms existed in 1904[29] and § 839 I BGB by itself only allows claims against specific officials, not the German state.[30]

Furthermore, Ovaherero representatives have sued Germany in the USA under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA, 28 U.S.C. § 1350),[31] which grants subject matter jurisdiction to US courts for the gravest breaches[32] of international law, in 2001[33] and 2017[34]. However, because of German state immunity in front of US courts,[35] those claims were and would still be unsuccessful.[36]

Finally, Germany could be sued before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ would have jurisdiction over the Genocide because this is ordered in Article IX of the (herein retroactively applied) 1948 Genocide Convention. It does pose a problem that only states can be party at the ICJ.[37] But while this halted a first – the German Genocide concerning – claim of the Ovaherero in 1988,[38] the problem would be resolved if today Namibia would sue on behalf of the Ovaherero. Such claim would pose a fairly good chance to legally obligate Germany to make reparation payments. Without assistance from the Namibian state though, Ovaherero’s options would be limited to diplomacy.


All in all, it must be found that neither codified nor customary international law of 1904 has been breached by the German genocide. This must however be morally corrected by the shared belief of the prohibition of genocide which can be transferred into a retroactive application of the breached 1948 Genocide Convention. While the ICJ would be a suitable court to claim this violation, the Ovaherero are dependent on the Namibian state to bring the claim. Otherwise, the breached principles of international law could only be claimed through diplomacy.

Johannes Friederich is a student at the University of Bayreuth. This article is based on his seminar paper.

[1] In the following, the use of the term “genocide” is referring to genocide after today’s understanding, being defined in Article 2 of the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

[2] Sarkin J., Colonial Genocide and reparations claims in the 21st century (first published in 2009, 1st edition, Praeger Security International, PLACE, 2009) 4 f.; Maas H. (at that time German Minister of Exterior), ‘Außenminister Maas zum Abschluss der Verhandlungen mit Namibia‘ (, 28 May 2021) <> accessed 16 June 2022; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, ‘Völkermord an Herero und Nama: Abkommen zwischen Deutschland und Namibia’ (, 22 June 2021) <> accessed 16 June 2022; see also Heinemann P., ‘Die deutschen Genozide an den Herero und Nama’ (2016) 55 Der Staat 461, 461 f. [pdf accessed at <> on 26 May 2022].

[3] Hamrick E. and Duschinski H., ‘Enduring injustice: Memory politics and Namibia’s genocide reparations movement’ (2018) 11(4) Memory Studies 437, 442 [pdf accessed at <> on 29 May 2022]; Heinemann (fn. 2), 464 f.; Sarkin (fn. 2), 5.

[4] Heinemann (fn. 2), 464; Weber H. and Weber M., ‘Colonialism, genocide and International Relations: the Namibian-German case and struggles for restorative relations’, (2020) 26(S I) European Journal of International Relations 91, 100 [pdf accessed at <> on 26 May 2022].

[5] Weber and Weber (fn. 4), 100; Anderson R.J., ‘Redressing Colonial Genocide: The Hereros’ Cause of Action Against Germany’ (2005) 93 California Law Review 1155, 1164 [pdf accessed at <>].

[6] Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (fn. 2).

[7] As this paper is solely discussing responsibility for genocide committed against the Ovaherero, the genocide against Nama people will not be discussed in the following.

[8] Drechsler H., Let us die fighting : the struggle of the Herero and Nama against German imperialism (1884-1915) (first published in 1980, 1st edition, Zed Press, London, 1980) 35 of pdf [pdf accessed at <> on 05 June 2022].

[9] See Kämmerer J.A. and Föh J., ‘Das Völkerrecht als Instrument der Wiedergutmachung? – Eine kritische Betrachtung am Beispiel des Herero-Aufstandes’ (2004) 42(3) Archiv des Völkerrechts 294, 309 f. [pdf accessed at <> on 26 May 2022].

[10] Kämmerer and Föh (fn. 9), 317 ff.

[11] See Bello E., African customary humanitarian law (first published in 1980, 1st edition, Oyez Publishing Limited, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 1980) 2 f., 49.

[12] 1864 Geneva Convention: Art. 6 (wounded combatants shall be collected and cared for); 1885 General Act of the Conference at Berlin: Art. 6 (duty to watch over the preservation of the native tribes); 1899 Hague Convention: Annex Art. 4 (treating prisoners of war humanely), Annex Art. 23 (prohibition of the declaration that no quarter will be given)

[13] Anderson (fn. 5), 1178.

[14] Anderson (fn. 5), 1173, 1181; see also Sarkin (fn. 2), 85.

[15] Also, the 1969 Vienna Convention indicates that third-party beneficiary rights did not yet exist in the 19th century, as it codified the concept in 1969 only in a non-retroactive manner (see Sarkin J. and Fowler C., ‘Reparations for Historical Human Rights Violations: The International and Historical Dimensions of the Alien Torts Claims Act Genocide Case of the Herero of Namibia’ (2008) 9 Human Rights Review 331, 342 f. [pdf accessed at <> on 26 May 2022]).

[16] Wissenschaftliche Dienste des deutschen Bundestages, ‘Der Aufstand der Volksgruppen der Herero und Nama in Deutsch Südwestafrika (1904-1908) – Völkerrechtliche Implikationen und haftungsrechtliche Konsequenzen’ (2016) WD 2 – 3000 – 112/16, 13 [pdf accessed at <> on 12 June 2022]; see also Fabricius T., Aufarbeitung von in Kolonialkriegen begangenem Unrecht (first published 2017, 1st edition, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, 2017) 198.

[17] See Bello (fn. 11), 49, 51.

[18] Bluntschli J. C., Das moderne Völkerrecht der civiliserten Staaten (first published unknown, 2nd edition, C.H. Beck, Nördlingen, 1872) 298 [accessed at <> on 18 June 2022].

[19] Bluntschli (fn. 18), 298.

[20] Sarkin and Fowler (fn. 15), 353; see also Sarkin (fn. 2), 95.

[21] See also Fabricius (fn. 16), 89 ff.

[22] Fabricius (fn. 16), 91.

[23] Eicker S., Der Deutsch-Herero-Krieg und das Völkerrecht (first published in 2009, 1st edition, Peter Lang, 2009) 294.

[24] See Eicker (fn. 23), 294, also referring to other scholars.

[25] This can be seen as all wide-spread religions include this prohibition, e.g. in the 10 commandments of Christianity; see also Eicker (fn. 23), 485.

[26] For the general concept of moral overruling legal certainty at an unbearable degree of injustice, see also Radbruch G., Gesetzliches Unrecht und übergesetzliches Recht (first published in 1946, 1st edition, Lambert Schneider, Heidelberg, 1946) 15 f.

[27] compare Maas H. (at that time German Minister of Exterior) (fn. 2) and Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (fn. 2).

[28] The moral beliefs are also overruling the argument, that the 1948 Genocide Convention did not rebut the customary rule, codified in article 28 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that presumes against the retroactive application of treaties (for this rule see Tams, Berster and Schiffbauer, Convention on the prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – a commentary (first published in 2014, 1st edition, C.H. Beck, Hart, Nomos, München, 2014) Introduction paragraph 42).

[29] Eicker (fn. 23), 485.

[30] Eicker (fn. 23), 485.

[31] US Code, Title 28 (judiciary and judicial procedure), Part IV (jurisdiction and venue), Chapter 85 (district courts; jurisdiction), section 1350 (Alien’s action for tort) [accessed at <> on 19 June 2022];

“The United States Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It is prepared by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States House of Representatives.” (Office of the Law Revision Counsel, ‘United States Code’ (, no date) <> accessed 19 June 2022).

[32] Wissenschaftliche Dienste des deutschen Bundestages, ‘Zuständigkeit US-amerikanischer Gerichte nach dem Alien Torts Claim Act – Schadensersatzklagen der Herero und Nama’ (2017) WD 2 – 3000 – 021/16, 4 f. [pdf accessed at <> on 12 June 2022].

[33] Sarkin and Fowler (fn. 15), 356 f.; Wissenschaftliche Dienste des deutschen Bundestages, ‘Gerichtliche und außergerichtliche Möglichkeiten der Aufarbeitung kolonialen und rassistisch motivierten Unrechts’ (2018) WD 2 – 3000 – 016/18, 5 [pdf accessed at <> on 12 June 2022]; Cooper A. D., ‘Reparations for the Herero Genocide: Defining the limits of international litigation’ (2006) 106(442) African Affairs 113, 1 [pdf accessed at <> on 04 June 2022].

[34] Rukoro et al v. Federal Republic of Germany, 1:17CV00062 (document1), summary of complaint [accessed on 12 June 2022 at <>]; Talmon S., ‘Germany not answerable in U.S. courts for alleged colonial genocide’ (, 09 December 2020) <> accessed 12 June 2022; Wissenschaftliche Dienste des deutschen Bundestages, ‘Gerichtliche und außergerichtliche Möglichkeiten der Aufarbeitung’ (fn. 33), 6.

[35] Germany has state immunity following the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) of 1976 (28 U.S.C. § 1604) [accessed at <> on 12 June 2022]; See also Rukoro et al v. Federal Republic of Germany, 1:17CV00062 (document 1), summary of complaint (fn. 36), paragraph 15.

[36] See also Talmon (fn. 34).

[37] Art. 34 S. 1 of the ICJ statute [accessed at <> on 16 June 2022].

[38] Wissenschaftliche Dienste des deutschen Bundestages, ‘Gerichtliche und außergerichtliche Möglichkeiten der Aufarbeitung’ (fn. 33), 5.


By Johannes Friederich

Johannes Friederich is a student at the University of Bayreuth.

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