The Republic of Namibia gained its independence on 21 March 1990 after decades of colonial rule by Germany and later under occupation by South Africa’s apartheid government. Prior to independence, Namibia witnessed grave violations of human rights, including the Nama and Herero genocide at the hands of German colonialists, the forced disappearances of thousands by South African forces, and the killings of an unknown number of Namibians accused of spying for South Africa by the liberation movement. The Namibian government has to date been reluctant to deal with the country’s history of abuses.

In 1884, the Protection Agreements between Germany and the indigenous communities of Namibia established the area as a German colony. The Nama and Herero peoples resisted colonial rule because of arbitrary land seizures by German settlers. An armed conflict ensued in 1904 after General Lothar von Trotha issued orders to exterminate the Herero people. An estimated 65,000 Herero, approximately 80 percent of the population, and 10,000 Nama, approximately 50 percent of the population, died during the conflict, which lasted until 1908.

German forces surrendered Namibia to South Africa following the First World War. Under South African rule, Namibia witnessed further gross violations of human rights. The South African National Defense Force (SANDF) and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) liberation movement were primarily responsible for these atrocities. The Koevoet, the counterinsurgency unit of SANDF, detained and tortured civilians in order to extract information about the liberation movement. The SANDF also carried out raids on SWAPO camps in neighboring countries. During the struggle, SWAPO and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), committed human rights abuses against their own members and innocent civilians. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, SWAPO allegedly detained and tortured thousands of people suspected of spying for the South African government.

Transitional Justice Mechanisms

Blanket amnesty was the earliest transitional justice mechanism implemented by the Namibian government after independence. Article 141 of the 1990 Constitution guaranteed that public officials who were in office on the date of Namibia’s independence would remain in their posts. The measure applied regardless of an official’s human rights record. Consequently, lustration efforts were blocked and many supporters of the apartheid regime were able to retain some degree of influence in Namibian affairs.

Despite the blanket amnesty and lack of lustration measures, the government did implement truth-telling initiatives in the 1990s. In 1991, Vekuii Rukoro of the Namibia National Front (NNF) party requested that the government invite the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to investigate past disappearances. Parliament approved the establishment of the ICRC commission in June 1991. Between 1991 and 1992, the ICRC visited 48 former detention camps in Angola and investigated over 2,000 requests submitted by families of the missing. The ICRC released its final report, titled Missing Namibians, in June 1993. The report listed 1,700 names of missing and deceased persons.

The ICRC has acknowledged the shortcomings of its mission, stating that its investigation “can hardly be considered satisfactory.” The main obstacle in ICRC’s investigation was a lack of information from SWAPO regarding what occurred within the organization. Despite the ICRC’s statement criticizing the accuracy of its findings, the Namibian government declared that it had achieved national reconciliation and the parliament refused to discuss the report.

Reparations demands directed at the German government and SWAPO accompanied Namibia’s fact-finding efforts. Despite South Africa’s involvement in human rights abuses in Namibia, there have been limited demands for reparations directed at the South African government. In 1995, when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Namibia, over 300 Herero tribal members petitioned for symbolic and financial reparations for the genocide. The negotiations around this are ongoing.

Various civil society organizations have demanded reparation measures aimed at SWAPO, and successive SWAPO-dominated governments have turned down their demands. The government’s refusal to implement a comprehensive reparations program is due to fears that it would draw attention to SWAPO’s culpability. Instead, the government has offered nominal compensation only to war veterans who participated in the liberation struggle, providing housing to some and honoring their service. The government also passed the War Veterans Subvention Act 16 of 1999, which established the War Veterans Trust Fund and Administration Board to grant monetary compensation to veterans and dependents of the deceased. The parliament repealed the Act in 2006 with the establishment of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs.

Attempts at reconciliation followed Namibia’s selective reparations measures. These include initiatives aimed at reintegrating soldiers, offering financial support to war veterans and orphans, commemorating the liberation struggle, and honoring war veterans through national holidays, such as Heroes Day on 26 August and Independence Day on 21 March. However, veterans of the war have been the sole beneficiaries of reconciliation.

In 2006, the Herero People’s Reparations Corporation filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims against three German corporations who played a role in the genocide. The case came before the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. The Herero People’s Reparations Corporation withdrew its claim against Terex Co. because the corporation was under different management during the genocide. The court dismissed the claims against Woermann and Deutsche Bank for lack of personal jurisdiction.


The blanket amnesty granted under Article 141 has allowed perpetrators to avoid accountability with complete impunity.


The reparations measures implemented thus far have been highly selective, limited in scope and incomplete. The main beneficiaries have been veterans of the independence struggle, their dependents, and families of the deceased. Namibia’s reparation efforts have excluded victims of grave human rights violations committed by the apartheid regime and at the hands of SWAPO. Additionally, the SWAPO government has largely opposed the Herero people’s claim for reparations. Due to its dependence on German aid, the government has taken the stance that since all Namibian tribes were victims of colonial rule, it would not single out a particular group for purposes of reparations.


Namibia’s truth-seeking efforts have been limited in scope. The ICRC’s report was not comprehensive due to SWAPO’s lack of cooperation. The government tried to discredit subsequent informal truth-seeking efforts, such as German Reverend Siegfried Groth’s book, Namibia: The Wall of Silence, based on interviews with former fighters who discussed SWAPO crimes. President Nujoma labeled Groth’s book “false history” and the government released Their Blood Waters Our Freedom to counter Namibia: The Wall of Silence. The document refers to those who died at the hands of SWAPO as heroes and has been criticized for falsification and other errors.

Inspired by Groth’s book, a group of former detainees established the Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWS) organization in 1996. Until 2010, government officials refused to meet with BWS to discuss the plight and fate of former detainees. BWS’ call for an impartial commission of inquiry into Namibia’s past abuses has been ignored. Moreover, the Namibian government refused to cooperate with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

International Actors

On 25 June 2002, Namibia deposited its instrument of ratification of the Rome Statute. However, the International Criminal Court (ICC) lacks jurisdiction over the crimes perpetrated by SWAPO and the apartheid government because they were committed before the ratification. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has also not reviewed a case that deals with Namibia’s past abuses or issued an advisory opinion on the matter.


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African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, “Cases and Decisions,” http://www.african-court.org/en/index.php/2012-03-04-06-06-00/all-cases-and-decisions.

Auditor-General Namibia, “Report of the Auditor-General on the Accounts of the War Veterans Trust Fund for the Financial Years Ended 31 March 2002 to 31 March 2008,” http://www.oag.gov.na/report/reports/724_WarVeterans_2001-08.pdf.

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International Committee of the Red Cross, Missing Namibians (1993).

International Criminal Court, “Namibia,” http://www.icc-cpi.int/en_menus/asp/states%20parties/african%20states/Pages/namibia.aspx.

Kornes, Godwin, “Negotiating ‘Silent Reconciliation’: The Long Struggle for Transitional Justice in Namibia” (working paper, Johannes Gutenberg University, 2013), http://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/Dateien/AP_141.pdf.

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Nangoloh, Phil, “Transitional Justice in Namibia: Opportunities and Challenges for the Parents’ Committee of Namibia (PCN) and National Society for Human Rights (NSHR),” NamRights, http://www.nshr.org.na/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=1196.

Peace Pledge Union, “Genocide—Namibia,” http://www.ppu.org.uk/genocide/g_namibia.html.

Stan, Lavinia, and Nadya Nedelsky, “Namibia,” in Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

William, Christian A., “Exile History: An Ethnography of the SWAPO Camps and the Namibian Nation” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2009).

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