Us drone missions via ramstein: legality must be examined

The government must examine whether drone strikes using data from the U.S. base are in line with international law, a court ruled. It rejected a general ban.

US drone attacks killed many civilians* in Yemen Photo: dpa

In the dispute over Germany’s responsibility for U.S. drone attacks, plaintiffs from Yemen have won a partial victory. If the U.S. uses data from the U.S. Ramstein base for armed drone missions, the Federal Republic must examine whether they are in accordance with international law, the Munster Higher Administrative Court announced in a decision published Tuesday. Germany must insist on compliance with international law vis-à-vis the United States, it said. The court rejected a general ban on the use of the U.S. Ramstein base for such drone missions.

The appeal hearing was about the complaint of a family from the Hadramaut region in eastern Yemen. According to their claims, an uncle and a brother-in-law were killed in the U.S. missile strike on August 29, 2012. According to the plaintiffs, a satellite relay station in Ramstein is used to transmit data for drone attacks in Yemen and other countries to the United States. The drones are controlled from there.

The judges said the Federal Republic had not sufficiently fulfilled its duty to protect the plaintiffs’ lives. There were strong indications that the U.S. was carrying out armed operations in Yemen that at least in part violated international law. It remained unclear, for example, whether the attacks in Yemen were limited to permissible military targets. The court had information proving the central role of the satellite relay station in Ramstein for armed drone operations in Yemen.

Armed drones are not generally prohibited by international law, the court stated. However, targeted military force through armed drone missions is only permissible on the basis of international humanitarian law and international human rights protection. According to this, attacks may only be directed against combatants of the groups involved in the conflict. Even in an armed conflict, arbitrary killings are not permissible. Because of the fundamental importance, the Senate allowed an appeal to the Federal Administrative Court.

Somali failed in second trial

In another trial before the same court, a Somali man also failed in the second instance with a lawsuit against Germany for a U.S. drone attack in his home country. Its appeal was inadmissible and unfounded, the Munster Higher Administrative Court ruled on Tuesday. It thus confirmed a previous ruling by the Administrative Court of Cologne.

According to the plaintiff, his father was mistakenly killed on Feb. 24, 2012, by an attack by an American drone that may have been coordinated from Ramstein Air Base or Stuttgart. The attack occurred in an area controlled by the African terrorist group Al-Shabaab near the Somali capital Mogadishu.

The son of the man killed sought a declaratory judgment that Germany shares responsibility for the attack. By having German courts rule such missions illegal, he reportedly wants the German government to prohibit the U.S. military from controlling drones from Germany in the future. However, the military bases are U.S. territory.

Contradictions in 2012 drone attack in Somalia.

In his oral statement of reasons for the verdict, the presiding judge of the fourth senate of the Higher Administrative Court, Wolf Sarnighausen, declared that the action was inadmissible. Thus, the Senate had not been able to convince itself that the plaintiff’s father had actually been killed in the 2012 drone attack. The plaintiff’s account of the facts, which was forwarded to the court through the intermediary of a Somali journalist, was in clear contradiction to the press coverage immediately afterwards. Civilian victims had not been mentioned at the time.

The higher administrative judges also doubted that the satellite relay station in Ramstein had already been completed in 2012. According to media reports, this was not the case until the end of 2013, they said. The plaintiff had not been able to present any evidence that German authorities had already been aware "of operations of armed drones in Somalia involving U.S. facilities in Germany" prior to that.

An appeal against the ruling of the Higher Administrative Court was not allowed. However, an appeal is possible, which will be decided by the Federal Administrative Court.