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.

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Glossary (2)


Postcolonial legal criticism

The academic field of postcolonial legal criticism looks at the repercussions of colonialism and imperialism today. In this context, law is seen as a social and cultural construct which changes over time. During the period of colonialization by European states, national and international law developed in a way that made it possible to legitimize for example slavery and genocide. European law, with its often racist elements, spread to many parts of the world in the course of colonialization.

Postcolonial theoreticians show how imperial laws served to cover up colonial violence and how injustice was legitimized through the fig leaf of law. The law was used, for example, to deny indigenous populations in the colonies their status as legal persons. The development of international law was also closely interwoven with colonialization. Postcolonial legal criticism today tries to uncover and challenge colonial continuities in both national and international law.

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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.

Germany not only has the moral, but also the legal obligation to return these stolen objects and cultural treasures. Because such artifacts often have a great spiritual significance for the affected communities beyond their artistic value, the restitution of these objects has a human and fundamental rights dimension that far exceeds the simple claim of property rights. We are currently supporting our partners in their efforts against the German state to assert their individual and collective rights to their own cultural identity.

ECCHR has worked for many years to address colonial injustice and Germany’s responsibility for its colonial crimes. Together with our efforts to repatriate Human Remains/Ancestors, scholarly and legal work on the issue of plundered art constitutes an important part of our project on decolonial legal critique and reparations – a decolonial legal praxis.

Our efforts are not only directed at helping specific affected individuals or communities restore stolen artifacts in a manner that preserves their dignity and sanctity. Comprehensive reparations – the only adequate response to colonial injustice – can only exist when coupled with a practice of restitution that goes beyond mere lip service or arbitrary decisions on individual cases. With our work on looted colonial art and artefacts, we aim above all to demonstrate how the law is still saturated with colonial patterns of thought. These structures must be broken.


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