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Namibia: The first in a dark century of massacres

1948 UN convention says genocide is ‘act committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’; many massacres still not recognized

In this Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 file photo skulls of Ovaherero and Nama people are displayed during a devotion attended by representatives of the tribes from Namibia in Berlin, Germany. Germany has reached an agreement with Namibia that will see it officially recognize as genocide the colonial-era killings of tens of thousands of people and commit to spending a total of 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), largely on development projects. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
In this Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 file photo skulls of Ovaherero and Nama people are displayed during a devotion attended by representatives of the tribes from Namibia in Berlin, Germany. Germany has reached an agreement with Namibia that will see it officially recognize as genocide the colonial-era killings of tens of thousands of people and commit to spending a total of 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), largely on development projects. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

PARIS — Germany recognized for the first time Friday that it committed genocide during its colonial occupation of Namibia more than a century ago.

Derived from the Greek “genos” (people) and Latin “cide” (to kill), genocide is defined under a 1948 UN convention as an “act committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

The Namibian massacres have been called the first genocide of the 20th century by historians. It was the first of many, some of which are still struggling for recognition. Here is an overview:

The Holocaust

The term genocide was used for the first time within a legal framework by the victorious Allies in 1945 to try Germany’s Nazi leaders at Nuremburg for the murder of six million Jews during World War II.

Graphic content: In this photograph taken on May 1, 1945, US soldiers look at a pile of prisoner’s bodies in a train near Dachau Concentration Camp, after the camp was liberated by the US army on April 29, 1945. (Eric Schwab / AFP)

The accused were eventually convicted of crimes against humanity.

It paved the way for the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention which for the first time codified the crime of genocide.

The attempted extermination of Europe’s Jews by Nazis began after the invasion of Poland in 1939 and was carried out on an industrial scale in its death camps.

More than a third of the world’s Jewish population died in what the Nazis called their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

As well as gas chambers, many were worked or starved to death and mobile mobile death squads called Einsatzgruppen mowed down one million people in what is known as the “Holocaust by bullets.”

Some half a million people from ethnic groups variously known as Roma, Sinti or gypsies were also murdered, as the Nazis considered them, like the Jews, to be “subhuman.”

Namibia

Germany ruled what was then called German South West Africa as a colony from 1884 to 1915. Colonial troops and settlers in 1904-1908 killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people.

The German Kamelreiterpatrouille, or ‘Camel Rider Patrol,’ in Southwest Africa, 1906 – 1918. (Budesarchiv Bild); Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa, modern day Namibia. (Public domain)

Hundreds of Herero and Nama were beheaded after their deaths and their skulls were handed to German researchers in Berlin for since discredited “scientific” experiments to prove the racial superiority of whites over blacks.

Friday’s announcement comes after more than five years of negotiations between Germany and Namibia, with Berlin also pledging financial support worth more than one billion euros for projects.

Armenians

Armenia says Ottoman forces massacred up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War I between 1915 and 1917.

Last month US President Joe Biden recognized the killings as genocide in a watershed for descendants of those who died.

Starting with Uruguay in 1965, nations including France, Germany, Canada and Russia have previously recognized the genocide.

Aftermath of a massacre during the Armenian genocide (public domain)

But a clear US statement had proved elusive under previous presidents worried about damaging relations with Washington’s key NATO ally Turkey.

The charge is vehemently rejected by Turkey — inheritor of the trunk of the empire — which admits nonetheless that vast numbers of Armenians perished as the Ottomans battled tsarist Russia.

But it claims as many Turks died and denies the existence of a deliberate policy of genocide.

Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide began in April 1994 shortly after the ethnic Hutu president was killed when his plane was shot down.

For 100 days militias and soldiers from the Hutu majority butchered men, women and children from the Tutsi minority.

The killing ended only when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took over in July 1994, having defeated the Hutu extremists.

A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

At least 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, were killed, according to the UN.

The UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda which issued the world’s first genocide conviction in 1998.

The court tried several dozen people before it wrapped up its work in 2015.

Trials of Rwandan genocide suspects have also taken place in Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Sudan

The International Criminal Court in 2010 added three genocide counts to charges against Sudan’s then president Omar al-Bashir over fighting that erupted in Darfur in 2003 and which the UN estimates has left 300,000 dead.

Residents dig a mass grave for victims of an attack that left over 60 dead in the village of Masteri in west Darfur, Sudan, July 27, 2020. (Mustafa Younes via AP)

Bashir has repeatedly denied the charges. He was the first sitting president of a country to be wanted by the ICC, and the first person to be charged with genocide.

Rohingya

Another 21st century crime is the massacres of the Muslim Rohingya people who are widely seen as illegal immigrants in Myanmar, denied citizenship and stripped of rights.

Myanmar is facing a barrage of legal challenges to hold it accountable over the alleged genocide against its Rohingya population in 2017.

Broken dishes can be seen in the burned out remains of a house in Myo Thu Gyi village near Maungdaw, Rakhine State, Myanmar, on August 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

This includes a case launched by Gambia at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court in The Hague. The ICC also approved an investigation into the military crackdown that forced some 740,000 Rohingya to flee.

UN investigators in 2018 branded the bloody expulsion a genocide, and called for the prosecution of Myanmar’s top generals.

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