West dodges blame at racism conference

Slavery » As one route to compensation is closed, Namibians seek another by claiming $2bn from Germans for colonial massacre
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The Independent Online

The UN conference on racism, after an extra day of wrangling, adopted a final declaration yesterday which let Israel off the hook for its treatment of Palestinians. Britain and the other former colonial powers also escaped any commitment to pay reparations for slavery, the other issue which delayed the end of the conference.

The US and Israel had already quit the Durban conference, complaining that the Jewish state was being stigmatised. While Arab states registered their reservations that the final document would not directly condemn Israel – it simply refers to "the plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation" – African countries admitted it also fell far short of their hopes for an unequivocal apology and compensation for slavery.

At the insistence of Western countries, there was no explicit apology for the trade which exported millions of Africans to the New World. Instead, the conference "acknowledged and profoundly regretted the massive suffering ... caused by slavery" and urged countries involved to express "regret, remorse or apologise". Slavery and slave trading are declared crimes against humanity, and the conference says they "should have been so" in the past.

Rich states had feared that any formal apology or retrospective declaration that past slave trading constituted a crime against humanity could lead to a flood of lawsuits, because no statute of limitations applies to such crimes in international law. But the Herero tribe in Namibia may have found a different way to win compensation for colonial oppression. Exploiting the rule that crimes against humanity can be tried anywhere, it is taking German companies to court in the US, claiming $2bn (£1.4bn) for their alleged complicity in atrocities committed nearly a century ago, when the southern African country was a German colony. If this action is successful, dozens more could follow, occupying courts around the world for years to come.

On Tuesday the Herero paramount chief, Kuaima Riruako, said a US class action suit had been filed against two German companies, Deutsche Bank, and Deutsche Afrika-Linien. Court documents accuse the companies of forming a "brutal alliance with Imperial Germany [which] relentlessly pursued the enslavement and the genocidal destruction of the Herero tribe". Mr Riruako said: "We are taking our case to America because it's easier and fairer and we can get support from the public there. Jews could not take their case to Germany, what chance then do we have of succeeding [in Germany]?"

German troops killed 65,000 Hereros, almost three quarters of the tribe, between 1904 and 1907. Orders were to kill every man, woman or child, "whether armed or unarmed". Survivors were forced into concentration camps, where some were used for medical experiments, while many women became sex slaves of the Germans. The slaughter had lasting effects: the Hereros, whose women still wear the ankle-length dresses prescribed by 19th-century German missionaries, were once powerful, but are now seen as no more than a colourful minority in Namibia.