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US drones stir controversy in Germany

Jennifer Wagner
March 14, 2019

The US military's Ramstein air base is a frequent source of criticism for the German government, especially when it comes to the operation of weaponized drones. Now the issue has gone to court.

Ramstein Air Base
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J.-C. Verhaegen

Command, click, kill? Weaponized drones are highly controversial in Germany. Two cases involving fatal drone attacks carried out by the United States are being brought before Germany's Higher Administrative Court in Münster.

Three Yemenis have taken legal action against the German government, as has one Somali. The plaintiffs claim to have relatives who lost their lives as a direct result of the deployment of US drones in their home countries.

The attacks are said to have been carried out via the Ramstein US military base in the state of Rhineland-Palentine, which is why the injured parties are suing the German government for being partially responsible. The military site is shrouded in secrecy. Little information is made public about what goes on at the facility, which is extremely controversial in Germany. More than 54,000 American citizens live in the community around Ramstein Air Base, including military personnel, their relatives and retirees, making it the largest American military presence outside the US.

Forwarding signals to deadly drones

Ramstein is mainly used as a hub for US military transportation. But apart from those carrying out activities at and through the air base, there is little public information available about what else takes place there. Even the few details about the suspected coordination of drone missions from the base took some time to surface.

In 2016, Germany's deputy minister for Europe, Michael Roth, reported in the German parliament that the US had informed the Foreign Ministry the base would be used as a telecommunications relay station for data traffic with unmanned aircraft. This means that radio signals are automatically received and forwarded on.

US drone in Afghanistan
Satellites at Ramstein link American drones with their operators in the USImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Shirzada

According to Marcel Dickow, a security policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, they "presumably come from the US via glass fiber," and are then passed on to the drones via satellite, but he added that "other operational functions are unknown."

From the US, the distance to directly control drone missions in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen is too far. This is why the US depends on the Ramstein base to forward data from the US on to its intended destination. In addition, US military personnel plan and supervise air operations in Ramstein and also follow up with evaluations, Roth reported.

'No knowledge'

Until Roth gave his report, the government always insisted that it had "no knowledge" of US operations that take place at Ramstein. Both Roth and later government spokespersons repeatedly emphasized that unmanned aircraft neither took off nor were controlled from Ramstein. When DW contacted the Foreign Ministry, this again was the official information provided. In addition, government spokespersons have repeatedly referred in recent years to the assurance from the US that the activities in its military properties in Germany "will be carried out in accordance with applicable law."

Read more: Should 'killer robots' be banned?

The Foreign Ministry reiterated this: "We are in regular exchange with our US partners on political, military and legal issues of the US armed forces in Germany. This includes an understanding that the US abides by German law both in its activities at Ramstein as well as in the whole of Germany." This adherence is also laid out in Article 2 of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement.

A danger to trans-Atlantic relations

For Dickow, however, it is clear that the German government clearly does not want to know everything that is going on at Ramstein. "Trans-Atlantic relations should not be worsened," he said. "The fight against terrorism has always been a contentious issue. This is due to the fact that Germany cannot and will not support aspects of the US anti-terrorism campaign."

Marcel Dickow SWP
Dickow says the German government doesn't necessarily want to know about everything that runs through RamsteinImage: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

Dickow says this willing blind-eye is evidenced by the way the German government overlooks opportunities to shine light on US activities within its borders, such as the German parliamentary investigation into the NSA spying scandal. Another opportunity ultimately passed up came along in 2015, when the Yemenis and the Somalis currently suing in Münster made their first legal attempt to hold to the German government jointly responsible for the death of their relatives. At that time, the Cologne Administrative Court ruled in the first case that the government was not obliged to prohibit the US from using Ramstein for drone attacks in Yemen.

Even in 2015, representatives from the German Ministry of Defense stated that they had no knowledge of whether the US military base was being used for drone attacks.

Germany aiding violations of international law?

For human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, however, it is clear that with the available knowledge on the coordination of drone attacks from Germany, the government is assisting the actions of the US.

In a statement released by the organization in 2018, it said that the situation is "even more acute given recent reports that President [Donald] Trump has rolled back restrictions governing the US's use of armed drones and lethal force abroad and dramatically expanded the administration's lethal drone operations."

Amnesty published an analysis of the roles and involvement of European states in US drone missions. According to the report, the German government is not doing enough to ensure that it does not aid drone attacks that violate international law.

Will the cases being brought in Münster bring new insights? That is something that even security expert Dickow is unable to predict: "Politically, I don't see that anything in the attitude of the [German] government has shifted in recent years."

According to the presiding judge in Münster, the court is facing a daunting and massive task. He said that neither the Constitutional Court, Germany's highest court, nor the Federal Administrative Court had ever dealt with a case of "comparable constellation."

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