In the summer of 2012, three members of the bin Ali Jaber family were killed in a drone attack in Yemen; many of the survivors were left traumatized. The US military base Ramstein in Germany played an important role in the attack. The German government's response has been to deny any knowledge of or responsibility for the drone strikes.
On 19 March 2019, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster (Germany) ruled that the German government must take action to ensure that the US respects international law in its use of Ramstein Air Base. In its judgment the court found in favor of the claimants from Yemen on several key aspects.
In August 2012, two members of the bin Ali Jaber family were killed in a drone strike in Yemen. The airbase at Ramstein hosts a satellite relay station as well as personnel that are crucial for drone operations in the region. This is why, in October 2014, Faisal bin Ali Jaber and two other members of his family brought a legal action against the German government. They are calling on the government in Berlin to forbid the use of Ramstein for drone strikes.
ECCHR and its partner organization Reprieve are assisting the claimants in taking legal action. This lawsuit on Germany’s role in the US drone program is part of ECCHR’s series of legal interventions on human rights violations committed by the US in the name of countering terrorism.
Since 2002, the US has been using targeted drone attacks to kill people suspected of being involved in terrorism – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and in Yemen. These strikes are not as “surgical” as the US claims, and often result in the deaths of innocent civilians.
Germany assists these US drone strikes by providing relevant information and by granting broad permissions for US military bases on German territory. The US military basis Ramstein in Rheinland-Pfalz plays a central role in US drone strikes; all relevant data for the combat drones passes through Ramstein, and personnel at the base are involved in planning and overseeing the strikes.
Q&A: The most important questions and answers concerning the lawsuit against the German government.
The use of armed drones is more than just another means of warfare. Through its drone program, the US repeatedly violates human rights and international law. Many strikes take place outside of armed conflicts and thus violate the right to life. This is the case in Yemen, where the US carries out targeted killings of people suspected of being terrorists. Drone strikes are not as accurate as is claimed and often result in the deaths of the "wrong" person and of innocent civilians; as such even when used in armed conflict drone strikes will in many cases violate international humanitarian law.
Germany assists US drone strikes by providing relevant information and by granting broad permissions for US military bases on German territory. The US military basis Ramstein in Rheinland-Pfalz plays a central role in US drone strikes; all relevant data for the combat drones passes through Ramstein.
Germany is in violation of its constitutional and human rights obligation to protect life because it has failed to take appropriate measures to prevent the US from using its bases and facilities on German territory in drone strikes. The German government must put a halt to the use of Ramstein for drone attacks – otherwise it is complicit in the death of innocent people.
The bin Ali Jaber family has suffered a deep personal loss. But not only that: to this day they and many other Yemenis live in constant fear of further drone attacks. They want to end the unlawful and devastating US drone attacks in Yemen.
The bin Ali Jaber family is calling on Germany to take legal and political responsibility for the US drone war in Yemen and to prohibit the use of Ramstein for this purpose.
Claimants Faisal bin Ali Jaber, Ahmed Saeed bin Ali Jaber and Khaled Mohmed bin Ali Jaber have already achieved one goal with their lawsuit: for the first time, the victims of drone attacks have been heard by a court in Germany. No matter how the case continues: the lawsuit taken by these three Yemenis is contributing to the long overdue political debate on Germany's role in US drone strikes.
The plaintiffs are aware that it may take several years of proceedings before a final judgment is handed down.
The claimants are asking Germany to stop assisting in US drone strikes. The German government must prevent the use of Ramstein for drone attacks, especially the attacks on the claimants' village and homeland in Yemen.
Several documents and witness statements prove that the US military base at Ramstein in Germany plays a central role in US drone strikes. By failing to prevent the use of Ramstein for such strikes, the German government bears part of the responsibility for the unlawful use of drones.
The transfer of data that is used to control the drones occurs via Ramstein. First, fiber optic cables route data from the US, where the drone pilots are stationed, to Ramstein. From there, it travels via satellite to the drones in the relevant operational area. Similarly, data coming from the drones, including real-time surveillance photographs, is routed back to the operations teams though Ramstein. The curvature of the earth means it is not possible to establish a direct connection between the US and the drones flying in Yemen and neighboring countries. The only US satellite relay station within the range of the operational areas is in Ramstein. US drone attacks are thus not possible without Ramstein.
In addition, Ramstein hosts one of five data centers where enormous amounts of data are collected, assessed and passed on to the drone operation teams. This makes Ramstein the biggest hub for the global drone program outside the US.
First, one has to differentiate between attacks that are taking place in an armed conflict, like for example in Afghanistan, and those that take place outside such a conflict, like in Yemen in the context of anti-terrorism operations.
Many of the US drone attacks are taking place in areas in which the US is not participating in an armed conflict. This is also evidenced by the fact that the CIA, rather than the US Army, is responsible for attacks in regions such as Yemen. In conflict zones, like Iraq or Afghanistan, the military is responsible for the use of drones.
Outside of armed conflicts – as is the case in Yemen – targeted killings using drones are legally categorized as murder, for which there are no legal justifications. Under human rights law, the drone strikes represent a violation of the affected individuals’ right to life, among others.
Even in armed conflicts, attacks may only be directed at people who are actively participating in the hostilities. Not every member of a conflict party may per se be killed. The US is disregarding this principle of international humanitarian law. In its politics and in practice, the US defines much larger groups of people as legitimate military targets.
The fundamental rule under international humanitarian law is to protect civilians under all circumstances.
The plaintiffs are suing Germany under administrative law. In a legal action for performance, they are demanding that Germany abide by its constitutional responsibility to protect their right to life under Article 2 of the German Basic Law, or constitution (Grundgesetz – "GG"). The plaintiffs fall under the protection of the German Basic Law because they are directly and negatively affected by Germany's actions, namely the fact that Germany is actively allowing the use of Ramstein and is not preventing the unlawful acts there.
The plaintiffs base their claim against Germany on the right to life and physical integrity. Article 2 and 25 of the Basic Law require that the German government prevent violations of international law on German territory (Article 2 Para. 2 sentence 1 GG; Article 2 Para. 2 sentence 1 together with Article 25 GG).
The lawsuit is against the German government represented in this case by the German Defense Ministry. The Defense Ministry is based in Bonn and so Cologne's administrative court had jurisdiction over the initial complaint. When this court rejected the complaint in May 2015, the claimants appealed to the Higher Administrative Court for Nordrhein-Westfalen in Münster.
The Court agreed that the claim was admissible since the German Basic Law obliges Germany to protect the lives of non-Germans abroad where these persons are affected by the actions of German authorities. But the judges, unwilling to adjudicate on foreign policy, granted the German government extremely broad discretion on the matter, effectively freeing the state from any court oversight on this issue.
In August 2015, the three claimants appealed the decision of the Cologne Administrative Court to the Higher Administrative Court for Nordrhein-Westfalen in Münster. The oral hearing will take place on 14 March 2019.
The appeal is based in part on the argument that the German government's discretion is limited by the unlawfulness of US drone strikes in Yemen and the grave danger posed to the claimants by these strikes. Their aim is to establish that Germany is under a legal obligation to take effective measures against the use of the US military base Ramstein for future drone strikes over their home region in Yemen.
Sönke Hilbrans from the law firm dka Rechtsanwälte Fachanwälte in Berlin is representing Faisal bin Ali Jaber, Ahmed Saeed bin Ali Jaber and Khaled Mohmed bin Ali Jaber and has filed the lawsuit in their name.
Since 2010, ECCHR has worked on legal questions concerning drone attacks around the world. We worked with the NGO Reprieve, which has been working on Yemen for several years, to legally analyze the drone attacks in Yemen and to prepare the lawsuit filed by the bin Ali Jaber family in October 2014 in Cologne.
At the appeal stage, ECCHR staff continue to undertake research and analysis to assist the claimants as they seek to exercise their rights. ECCHR will also be represented by a member of staff at the oral hearing.
For several years, ECCHR staff have been examining the question of liability for drone attacks and analyzing possible legal steps. In 2013, ECCHR submitted a comprehensive submission in the context of criminal investigations into the killing by drone of a German national in Pakistan and worked with an eyewitness to create a 3D simulation of the drone attack.
Human rights violations in the global fight against terrorism are also an integral part of the ECCHR's work on investigations in Spain and France into torture at Guantánamo Bay, as well as on torture at CIA black sites.
Under German law, NGOs are generally not permitted to file lawsuits in their own name. Only persons whose rights have directly been violated have standing before the courts.
Human rights apply universally. The US repeatedly violates fundamental human rights in the context of their global fight against terrorism. In Yemen, no civilians would be killed in drone attacks if Germany prevented the use of German territory for the strikes.
In all of its work, ECCHR seeks to enforce the law in order to challenge injustice. The goal in this case is to ensure the German government ends its support of US activities that violate international law and ends its role in the deaths of innocent people in drone strikes.