Return of human remains: Descendants demand justice

Institute – (Post)Colonial Crimes – Human remains/ancestors

In colonial times, Germans robbed people in the colonies of their land, their cultural artefacts and their lives. And they stole their family members – in the form of bones and other body parts. They brought them to Europe for racist research purposes. Even today tens of thousands of so-called Ancestors/Human Remains are stored or displayed in German museum archives, universities and private collections. They are thereby denied their right to dignity and their descendants’ right to mourn is disregarded. Why, more than a hundred years later, does Germany continue to deny the descendants of those killed a dignified burial? And what does this mean for (not) coming to terms with the colonial past?

In a civil society alliance with Berlin Postkolonial, Decolonize Berlin and the Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland, ECCHR aims to raise awareness about the racism and colonialist patterns of discrimination that continue to underpin this issue. To this end, we submit a shadow report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).


Germany has not only a moral but also a legal obligation to repatriate Human Remains/Ancestors to their relatives. In Germany, Human Remains/Ancestors are still all too often understood as “objects” rather than what they are – human beings with rights under German Basic Law who have living descendants. As a deceased person in Germany, one has the right to be treated with dignity and to rest in peace. Descendants can also demand this. They also have the constitutional right to commemorate their loved ones with dignity and bury them in accordance with their culture.

By refusing to return Human Remains/Ancestors, Germany is ignoring its constitutional obligation to protect the rights of all. It systematically denies Black people and people of African descent their rights, as our shadow report points out. Germany is also a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and must therefore treat all people equally and actively combat discrimination, including with regard to human remains.


The shadow report details links between the colonial past and racist discrimination today. Germany still suffers from “colonial amnesia,” which has far-reaching consequences for the lives of Black people and people of African origin.

German colonial crimes must be officially recognized and dealt with. Otherwise, the already omnipresent racism, systematic discrimination and exclusion will be reproduced over and over – as is the case for Human Remains/Ancestors. Their repatriation would also help to finally recognize the humanity of those killed and abducted.

Documents (3)


Glossary (2)


Intertemporal principle

According to the principle of intertemporality, a legal question has to be assessed on the basis of the laws in effect at the relevant time.

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Topics (1)


Colonial looted art

Whether still on display in glass cases, gathering dust in archival depositories or undergoing inspection by scientists, countless cultural artifacts were once looted and shipped off to Germany during the colonial era. The German colonizers brought back statues, masks and bodily adornments to their home country for exhibition and research purposes. And these objects still reside there today, far away from the countries they came from, in spite of the fact that the colonies no longer exist and that formerly colonized peoples have demanded the return of their art – a part of their cultural and spiritual l identity and heritage.

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