German case challenges legality of the US military’s actions at Ramstein Air Base

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Tomorrow (5 April) the German Federal Administrative Court will consider whether the US is waging an unconstitutional war via its military base in Ramstein. According to the German peace movement, US military drones are being operated in real-time from the US via Ramstein. The case is interesting from an Irish point of view in that the crux of it is that the use by the US military of a site on German territory for the killing of civilians elsewhere is in contravention of German and international law. Given Shannon airport’s longstanding position as a de facto US military base, the arguments and outcome of this case should be of interest to anyone concerned by Ireland’s facilitating and supporting US wars and invasions around the world.

Below, an interview with Peter Becker, the lawyer for the plaintiff in the case, which was originally published in the German daily Junge Welt. Translation by Niall Farrell.

‘We call for the monitoring of the Ramstein airbase’

On April 5th the Federal Administrative Court will consider whether the USA is waging an unconstitutional war via its military base in Ramstein. An interview with Peter Becker, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in a case against the German government
Interview: Susan Bonath

Q: Your client has taken a case against the German government seeking the monitoring of armed drone operations by the US Army at the Ramstein Airbase. On April 5th, the Federal Administrative Court will hear the case. Who is your client exactly?

First, it has to be stated that drones are lawful weapons. They become illegal only when they are used to attack and kill civilians. This is the so-called humanitarian law of war. As we know, purely on the basis of suspicion the US forces liquidate individuals, and these weapons are controlled via Ramstein. Therefore our first submission calls for the monitoring of this US airbase. Since July 2013, we know officially, what is still largely unknown, that two liaison officers of the German armed forces are on operational duty in Ramstein. These German liaison officers must be familiar  with the situation. Therefore the Federal Government cannot claim it is unaware of what is going on in Ramstein. This is directly linked to our second submission: If the United States is reluctant to leave control of the drone operations to the German armed forces, the German government must prohibit further use of the Ramstein Airbase by the USA.

Q: So, the Federal Government should prove that no civilians are being attacked from German soil. Would that be the case, it would be contrary to international law.

Yes, that is it. Under the UN Charter violence is forbidden. That means: a state may not attack another state. If a drone injures civilians, this is a breach of the prohibition of force. Even domestically In the Federal Republic this law applies. Under Article 25 of the Basic Law, the general rules of international law are enshrined as part of federal law. Therefore any resident of this country can take a case on the basis that there has been a violation of the law.

Q: Your initial court action was taken in order to uncover certain information. What was that?

Amongst other things, it had to do with gathering information on aircraft movements in the context of military operations, such as in Afghanistan. We also demanded that the federal government refrain from supporting such operations. The Ministry of Defence claimed, however, not to be aware of the number of individual flights. I think it was trying to cover itself.

Q: Why did your cases fail?

The courts rejected our cases, because they did not accept my client was directly affected by the drone operations. In Germany it is as follows: actions can only be taken by those who have been directly injured. Plaintiffs are not allowed to pursue cases with direct political aim or sobjectives through the courts.

We then argued that my client lived only twelve kilometers from the airbase and lives directly in flight path. On this basis he is exposed to the danger of terrorist attacks. The administrative court said, however, it could not be determined whether in fact there is a risk. On appeal, the Higher Administrative Court ruled my client faced no danger from terrorism .

Q: How do you rate your chances before the Federal Administrative Court on April 5th?

We are relatively optimistic. After all, there were already interesting decisions in the past, such as the judgment on the Iraq war. In addition, our reasoning is very solid. So it’s all to play for. In my opinion, a renewed rejection of the action could only be justified by the fact that the applicant is pursuing a policy objective and is not apparently directly affected.

My client is seeking to give the case considerable publicity. That will not make it any easier in the court. However, it would be good if in the process there develops a wider discourse on the US airbase in Ramstein.

Q: If you lose again: What would be the next step?

Then we would have the opportunity to appeal to the Federal Constitutional Court. If we fail there, the way would be open to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If necessary we will discuss after the court gives its verdict.