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.
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.