German Court Rejects Civilian War Damages Claim | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.11.2006
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German Court Rejects Civilian War Damages Claim

A German federal court decided Thursday that families of civilians killed in a 1999 NATO air strike on a Serbian town cannot seek compensation from Germany, affirming that civilians may not sue countries for war damages.

A cyclist looks at the remain of the Varvarin bridge

Survivors of the bombing said Germany was responsible for selecting NATO's targets

Thirty-five survivors and victims' family members from the Serbian village of Varvarian had been seeking about 500,000 euros ($638,200) from the German government until the German Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe, Germany's highest court of appeals, ruled Thursday that civilian victims of war cannot claim such damages.

The incident dates back to 1999 when a surprise NATO air strike in the town of Varvarian at the height of the Kosovo war killed 10 civilians and injured another 30.

Although no German planes took direct part in the raid, the plaintiffs claimed that German troops serving with NATO helped select the target and that Germany therefore shared responsibility for the NATO action.

Potentially wide ramifications

A hand holds a photograph of the destroyed bridge

NATO claims the bridge in Vavarin was their trarget

With its ruling against paying out war damages to civilians, the court countered the advice of an earlier hearing in Cologne. Though the regional court there rejected the concrete claim of the Varvarian survivors and relatives, it had ruled that in principle civilian victims of war could claim damages.

"Traditionally military operations are not subject to scrutiny in a court of law," Frankfurt civil advocate Michael Bothe told Der Spiegel magazine before the ruling was issued. A ruling in favor of the victims would have been a "landmark on the way to the civilization of war," he added.

NATO attack on party went unpunished

Whether a pay-out from NATO would have been described as civilized by the survivors of the attack is another question, especially considering the horror of the event over seven years ago.

In May 1999 two NATO warplanes swooped from a cloudless sky to bomb a celebration of the Festival of the Holy Trinity in the Serbian village of Vavarian. A town of 4,000 inhabitants, Vavarian is located 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the province of Kosovo where Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian army was suppressing ethnic Albanians at the time.

For the people of Varvarin, NATO's war against the former Yugoslavia was something that had been happening far away. The provincial Serbian town had been spared the bombs of the Kosovo campaign until that day.

While children rushed across a bridge to join the festivities in the town, the alliance jets launched their attacks. One missile obliterated the bridge and as the townsfolk were rushing to the aid of the wounded, a second missile struck, claiming additional lives.

Two American-made F-16 fighter jets in flight

Many believe the two planes involved were US F-16 fighter jets

Why the bridge and the people of Varvarin were targeted remains a mystery, as does whether the pilots knowingly attacked the party. NATO has not revealed the nationality of the planes, though many believe they were F-16 fighters from the United States Air Force.

The alliance spoke only of "collateral damage" at the time and stated that the target had been a major motorway bridge though the town was only made up of small roads and side streets.

Demanding accountability

The survivors question why those who commit crimes or fatal mistakes in war should not be made to face up to the consequences.

"One cannot kill somebody and then say that no-one is responsible," said Vesna Milenkovic, the mother of a 15-year-old victim of the attack.

Some countries have taken responsibility for similar attacks in the past, mainly due to potential political pressures. When the United States admitted to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the war, the furor was enough to prompt a payout of $28 million to the People's Republic of China and $4.5 million to the survivors and relatives of the dead.

A black-and-white aerial view picture of the Greek village of Distomio

Some 300 residents of Distomio were killed during a Nazi SS massacre in 1944

Those countries who have been accused of fatal mistakes by civilian victims have usually escaped paying compensation by maintaining that individuals cannot sue a state.

In 2002, when the Canadian Court of Appeal threw out a case against Canada for what Yugoslavian victims of the war called its "political decision to take part in the bombardment by NATO," the Canadian government was accused of enjoying a self-imposed immunity.

Germany has also rejected similar claims in the past. The Federal Supreme Court recently rejected a claim for damages from the inhabitants of the Greek village of Distomo, which was the scene of a Nazi SS massacre in 1944.

Call for civil cases gathering strength

Since the end of World War II, however, calls for individual claims against nations have gotten stronger. In May 2005 the UN human rights commission asked states to pave the way for individual damage claims in cases where international law had been breached.

Germany, however, has not ratified that resolution. The Varvarin case landed in German courts because the Serb claimants were only able find financial support for their case in Germany.

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