Reprieve client Faisal bin Ali Jaber is in federal court in Germany today, in the latest stage of his lawsuit against the German government for facilitating the US drone strike the killed his relatives Salem and Waleed in 2012. Last year a lower court ruled that Germany must ensure that US operations assisted by Ramstein Air Base comply with international law. The German government is appealing the ruling.
The below article was published today, November 25, 2020, in Der Spiegel. As the original is only available in German, we have translated the text for English-speaking people in the Reprieve community.
What is Germany’s responsibility for the US drone war?
Does Germany have to ensure that the US complies with international law when deploying drones with the help of its Ramstein military base? The Federal Administrative Court is hearing the case of three Yemenis this Wednesday.
Should German officials control the US military’s drone war in Ramstein? If it were up to Faisal bin Ali Jaber, they would have to. Together with two relatives, the 62-year-old Yemeni is suing the Federal Republic of Germany to stop them looking the other way when the Americans bring death at the push of a button, with the help of their army base in on German soil.
On Wednesday , the Federal Administrative Court will negotiate Germany’s role in US drone operations – a question that could strain defence and political ties with its NATO partner. For Plaintiff Jaber, however, it is not about military strategy or alliances. His lawsuit, supported by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), is personal: according to his own statements, he lost a nephew and a brother-in-law in a drone attack in Yemen in 2012.
Policeman Waleed and teacher and Imam Salem, Jaber writes, were “good-hearted and courageous people” who opposed terrorists and extremists. But they were powerless “against the US missile, which was fired from a drone with the help of Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.” Jaber is afraid that he, too, could fall victim to a drone attack in his home country. “That is what armed drones do: they kill.”
The US regularly takes drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen. Human rights activists have repeatedly raised concerns about ‘signature strikes’ in which people are killed on suspicion. According to US attorney Jennifer Gibson, who supports the lawsuit for the human rights organisation Reprieve, leaked data after the attack showed that Jaber’s relatives were innocent men, targeted by mistake.
From a legal point of view, Jaber and his relatives are actually in a good starting position. The Higher Administrative Court in Münster had already recognised that Germany must actively check whether US drone attacks from Ramstein violate international law. Relying on an American assurance that everything is already legal is not enough.
Germany has an obligation to protect potential victims of drone attacks controlled from German soil, to protect their fundamental right to life, the lower court ruled. It also called for a precise distinction between civilians and combatants. International law provides no basis for military strikes without imminent danger: the United States has a precariously broad understanding of armed conflict.
Faisal bin Ali Jaber was relieved after the judgment in Münster. It had restored his “belief in justice”. The federal government, however, has appealed, now the Leipzig judges are dealing with German responsibility.
“The USA is bound by German law through the NATO troop statute, and this includes international law,” said lawyer Andreas Schüller, an expert on international law at ECCHR, optimistically before the hearing. “And the right to life in the Basic Law also leads to obligations under international law for the Federal Republic.”
Schüller sees the plaintiffs supported by recent case law. Among other things, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in May on the BND law that Germany’s commitment to fundamental rights was not limited to national territory. And here national territory is even involved, said Schüller. In fact, the US military uses its base near Kaiserslautern as a relay station for incoming data, which is sent from here to satellites and then to the drones.
The Federal Ministry of Defense does not want to comment on Germany’s participation in the US drone fight against terrorism or on the Yemenis’ complaint, with reference to the ongoing process. In the earlier legal dispute with the plaintiffs, however, the federal government had argued that the complaint was inadmissible and unfounded.
It was, it said, not Germany’s task to act as a world public prosecutor vis-à-vis other states. Germany’s responsibility is limited to the fulfilment of protective obligations within the scope of existing influence. And in doing so, they are in dialogue with the USA, which asserts that Germany is not a “launching point” for armed drone operations – in other words, that nobody presses the button in this country. But it may not necessarily be important for participation.
Should Germany actually be required to ensure that Ramstein is not used for drone missions that violate international law, the question is how that would be possible at all. The Federal Administrative Court will presumably not order very much. The federal government could, however, be forced to take a position under international law with regard to the USA. ECCHR lawyer Schüller is already thinking ahead: “If nothing changes, the way in which Ramstein is used has to be scrutinised.” Back in court, of course.