Q&A: German Court Demands Greater Scrutiny of U.S. Drone Attacks

People holding hands on a road
Activists protest U.S. drone policy at an air force base in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany, on June 11, 2016. © Oliver Dietze/dpa/Newscom

For years, the United States has been using targeted drone attacks to kill terrorism suspects, with innocent victims often dying in the process. On March 19, 2019, a German court ruled that the German government must review its support of this U.S. policy. Recently, the Open Society Human Rights Initiative’s Soheila Comninos spoke about the case with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights' Andreas Schüller.

To start, what should people know about this case?

In the summer of 2012, two members of the bin Ali Jaber family were killed in a drone attack in Yemen. The bin Ali Jaber family are very clear about what happened. Salem bin ali Jaber was an imam, known for his anti-Al Qaeda views. Indeed, he had preached a guest sermon denouncing Al Qaeda’s hateful ideology just days before he was killed by a U.S. drone. But, in August 2012, he met with a handful of people he did not know, and it was during this meeting that the United States struck, killing Salem as well as the others.

Why was this case brought in Germany?

While the United States is primarily responsible for the drone strike program, other governments, including Germany, are complicit. Southwest Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, for example, plays a key role in collecting, analyzing, and passing on—via satellite—data used in U.S. drone attacks. Part of the base’s operations team evaluates the real-time drone pictures and assists the pilots in targeted killings.

What was the response of the German government to the suit?

The government has essentially dug its head in the sand, denying the existence of the program or any knowledge of German assistance. In fact, during court proceedings the German Defense Ministry testified that it had no knowledge that the Ramstein Air Base played a role in supporting the U.S. drone program. The Defense Ministry’s testimony was strongly contradicted by the public record, however—including by statements from U.S. officials, as well as revelations by a former drone operator in 2013, all of which pointed to the base’s role in drone strikes. 

Why is this case important even to people who are not concerned with Germany or its politics?

It is the first court ruling that finds the U.S. drone program is unlawful. It sets a precedent with regard to the drone program not only in Yemen, but around the world.

What happens with the case now?

The judgment is not final yet. Once the written judgment is sent to parties, they will consider an appeal. If there is an appeal, it will be considered at the federal administrative court in Leipzig. If not, the decision conveyed today will become final. 

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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