On 27 May 2015, the Administrative Court (Verwaltungsgericht) of Cologne dismissed the claim brought against the German government by three Yemeni citizens. The claimants survived a drone strike in Yemen in which US airbase Ramstein played a central role. Two of their relatives died in the attack, while many other family members have been left traumatized. The claimants as well as the ECCHR and partner organization Reprieve regret the decision. The appeal to the Higher Administrative Court is currently pending and legal arguments have been exchanged between the parties.
On 29th August 2012, a rocket fired by US drones struck the village of Khashamir in eastern Yemen. The extended bin Ali Jaber family had gathered in the village to celebrate a wedding. Two members of the family were killed in the strike. Other family members were left with ongoing trauma. The US military base in Ramstein was used to help carry out the attack. Despite this the German government continues to deny any responsibility for civilian deaths caused by US drone warfare. The three Yemeni nationals called on Germany to accept legal and political responsibility for US drone warfare in Yemen and to stop the use of the US military base and in particular the satellite relay station in Ramstein.
The almost global capacity to conduct airstrikes anytime, anywhere: that is one of the most distinctive features of armed drones – and therefore a new dimension of warfare. Since many years the US employs drone strikes in the thousands. Again and again, innocent people are killed in the attacks – in many different countries. US drone warfare often violates international law, such as strict rules on the use of force and self-defense (ius ad bellum), principles and customs of war (ius in bello), basic human rights (namely the right to life and physical integrity), by attacking individuals without sufficiently determining their status. This results in blatant violations of human rights and international law.
Q&A: The most important questions and answers concerning the lawsuit against the German government.
The use of armed drones is more than an aggravated means of warfare. Through the drone war, the US is repeatedly violating international law and human rights. Many of the drone attacks take place outside of armed conflicts. Therefore, the attacks are not covered by international humanitarian law – this is also the case in Yemen, where the US is employing means of war in the context of their global fight against international terrorism. In Yemen the US carries out targeted killings of people whom they suspect of terrorism. This frequently leads to mistakes, which results in the deaths of innocent bystanders. There is no legal basis that justifies the killing of innocent parties and the violation of the right to life.
No one has, so far, been able to put a stop to the illegal US drone attacks. On the contrary: Germany is supporting the drone war through the exchange of information and through comprehensive usage rights for the US military bases. The US military basis Ramstein in Rhineland-Palatinate plays a central role in the drone war: all relevant data for the combat drones passes through Ramstein.
Germany is violating its constitutional and human rights obligation to protect because it has, thus far, not taken appropriate measures to prevent the US from using its bases and facilities on German territory for drone attacks. The German government must put a halt to the use of Ramstein for drone attacks – otherwise it is complicit in the death of innocent civilians.
Several documents and witness statements prove that the US military base Ramstein, and thereby German territory, is playing a central role in the US drone war. Therefore, by not preventing the use of Ramstein, the German government bears co-responsibility for the use of drones that constitutes a violation of international law.
The transfer of data that is used for the technical command of the drones occurs via Ramstein. First fiber optic cables route the data from the US, where the drone pilots are sitting, to Ramstein. From there, it travels via satellite to the drones in the relevant operational area. Similarly, data coming from the drones, such as the real-time surveillance photographs, is routed back to the operations teams. The curvature of the earth means it is not possible to establish a direct connection between the US and the drones in the operational area. The only US satellite relay station within the range of the operational areas is in Ramstein: therefore, drone attacks are currently not possible without the use of Ramstein.
The lawsuit is against the German government, which is represented by the German Defense Ministry. The Defense Ministry is based in Bonn, therefore Cologne's administrative court had jurisdiction over the initial complaint. When this court rejected the complaint in May 2015, the claimants appealed before the Higher Administrative Court for Nordrhein-Westfalen in Münster.
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 proceedings are ongoing.
Since 2010, ECCHR has worked on legal questions regarding drone attacks around the world. Together with the international NGO Reprieve, which has been active in Yemen for several years, the drone attacks in Yemen were legally analyzed and the lawsuit that the Bin Ali Jaber family filed in October 2014 before Cologne's administrative court was prepared.
ECCHR staff research the background as well as the liability for drone attacks and analyze the legal context and the possible causes of action. ECCHR has submitted a comprehensive statement on the preliminary criminal proceedings regarding the killing of a German national in Pakistan. Together with an eye witness, they reconstructed the drone attack in a 3D simulation.
Furthermore, human rights violations in the global fight against terrorism are an integral part of the ECCHR's work on the Guantanamo investigative proceedings in Spain and France, as well as on the CIA black sites.