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Legal history could be made on Thursday when a German federal court decides whether families of civilians killed in a NATO airstrike on a Serbian village seven years ago can seek compensation from Germany.
The case could pave the way for states to be held accountable for civilians killed in war
Families of the victims and the survivors of a NATO raid on a Serbian village are seeking compensation of around half a million euros from the German government. The German Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe will decide on Thursday if civilian victims of war can in theory claim such damages.
The incident dates back to 1999 when a surprise NATO airstrike on a bridge in the Serbian village of Varvarian at the height of the Kosovo war killed and injured civilians.
Although no German planes took direct part in the raid, the plaintiffs claim that German troops serving with NATO helped select the target and Germany therefore shared responsibility for the NATO action.
Potential wide ramifications
It would be a landmark ruling if the court follows the advice of a pre-hearing in Cologne where the regional court ruled that in principle civilian victims of war could claim damages, but however rejected their concrete claim.
Even if the federal court in Karlsruhe simply confirmed the Cologne court's ruling on Thursday, it could have serious ramifications for future German peackeeping deployments.
If the victims of war can bring financial claims against an aggressor state then this would not only be without precedent in Germany but also a worldwide first.
The attacks focused on the bridge in Varvarin
"Traditionally military operations are not subject to scrutiny in a court of law," Frankfurt civil advocate Michael Bothe told Der Spiegel magazine. Up to now, states can demand compensation for damages caused by war but not private individuals. If the federal German court now rules in favor of the victims it would be a "landmark on the way to the civilization of war," Bothe added.
NATO attack on party went unpunished
Whether a pay-out from NATO would be described as civilized by the survivors of the attack is another question, especially considering the horror of the event over seven years ago.
Ten people were killed and 30 seriously wounded in May 1999 when two NATO warplanes swooped from a cloudless sky to bomb a party in the Serbian village of Vavarian celebrating the Festival of the Holy Trinity. A town of 4,000 inhabitants, Vavarian is located 200 kilometers from the province of Kosovo where Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian army was suppressing ethnic Albanians.
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 when the townsfolk rushed to the aid of the wounded, a second missile struck, claiming more lives.
NATO F-16's are believed to have carried out the raid
Why the bridge and the people of Varvarin were targeted remains a mystery as does whether the pilots knowingly attacked the party. NATO would not even reveal the nationality of the planes; many believe them to have been F-16 fighter from the United States Air Force. The alliance spoke only of "collateral damage" at the time and stated that the attack was on a major motorway bridge despite the fact that the town was only made up of small roads and side streets.
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.
Until now, those who have taken responsibility for similar attacks have done so only because of 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.
Families of those killed in the war want justice
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.
In fact, Germany had 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 SS massacre in 1944.
Call for civil cases gathering strength
Since the end of World War II, however, the calls for individual claims against nations have gotten stronger. In May, 2005 the UN human rights commission even asked states to pave the way for individual damage claims in cases where international law had been breached.
Germany however has yet to ratify that resolution. Ironically, the Varvarin case has landed in German courts because the Serb claimants could only find financial support for their case in Germany.