A lawyer for Germany on Tuesday urged a U.S. judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the country on behalf of the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia over genocide and seizure of property carried out by German colonists more than 100 years ago.
The lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, argued to U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan that the American court did not have jurisdiction over the dispute, citing Germany’s status as a sovereign nation and a legal doctrine that courts should refrain from deciding purely political questions.
“You should abstain from this case under the political question doctrine and let the bilateral negotiations proceed between these two sovereigns,” he said, referring to Germany and Namibia.
Kenneth McCallion, who represents the Herero and Nama leaders and organizations that brought the lawsuit, said Germany’s sovereignty did not shield it from the lawsuit because the genocide was a violation of international law.
The genocide, which Germany has acknowledged, took place from roughly 1904 to 1908, when Namibia was a German colony known as German South-West Africa, after the Herero and Nama groups rebelled against German rule.
Victims were also subjected to harsh conditions in concentration camps, and some had their skulls sent to Germany for scientific experiments, according to historians.
The German government has entered negotiations with the current Namibian government over possible reparations for the genocide. However, the lawsuit contends that Germany violated international law on the rights of indigenous peoples by refusing to negotiate with the Herero and Nama directly.
The plaintiffs said Germany enriched itself by seizing Herero and Nama land and by selling the skulls of murdered victims. They have asked Swain to recognize the case as a class action and award unspecified damages.
Harris argued on Tuesday that the court could only award damages if the wealth Germany stole from Namibia was present in the United States. While the plaintiffs pointed in their lawsuit to several New York properties owned by the German government, Harris said they had failed to link them to Germany’s activities in Namibia.
McCallion countered that the cash flowing into the German treasury from Namibia “certainly can be traced, in an economic theory as well as in a legal theory, to the purchase of buildings in New York.”
Swain did not rule on Germany’s motion to dismiss the case.