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State immunity

February 3, 2012

The UN's highest court has upheld Germany's immunity from being sued in Italian national courts for war crimes committed by Nazi soldiers during the 1943-1945 occupation of Italy.

The German delegation, front row left, and the Italian delegation, front row right, rise as the judges enter the court room in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday Feb. 3, 2012, where the International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in a dispute between Germany and Italy over World War II reparations. (Foto:Peter Dejong/AP/dapd)
Germany enjoys immunity from foreign national courtsImage: dapd

Italy violated Germany's national sovereignty by allowing its courts to handle restitution claims for Nazi war crimes, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Friday.

In 2008, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that Luigi Ferrini, an Italian national, was entitled to reparations for his forced deportation to Germany in 1944, where he worked as a slave laborer in the armaments industry.

The 15-judge ICJ, the UN's highest legal body, said in a 12-3 ruling that the Italian case violated Germany's rights under international law. Rulings by the ICJ are final and binding.

"The court therefore holds that the action of Italian courts in denying immunity constitutes a breach of the obligation owed to the German state," ICJ judge Hisashi Owada said at a public hearing in The Hague.

Reparations system

Germany had filed its case against Italy before the ICJ in 2008, claiming that it enjoyed immunity from being sued in national courts. Berlin argued that the Italian court decision jeopardized the established reparations system, potentially opening a floodgate of restitution claims from individuals around the world.

Besetzung Roms durch Wehrmacht/Sept.1943 2. Weltkrieg / Deutsche Offensiven in Italien ("Fall Achse") nach Abschluss des Waffenstillstandes zwischen Italien und den Alliierten am 3.9.1943. Besetzung Roms durch Fallschirmjaeger, 10. September 1943. - Ein Posten der Fallschirmjaeger bei der Einweisung eines einrueckenden Konvois der Wehrmacht.- Foto, Sept.1943.
Many Italians turned against Germany as the Allies advancedImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Berlin had tried to avoid this scenario by negotiating bilateral reparation accords with Israel and nations occupied during the war. The German government signed its reparations treaty with Italy in 1961, which called for a restitution of 40 million D-Mark (20 million euro, $26 million) for Italians who were subjected to "National Socialist persecution due to race, religion and worldview."

Although Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy was an ally of Hitler's Germany, Nazi troops occupied and effectively took control of the country after the Allied invastion in 1943.

Italy argued that abuses committed by troops serving under the Third Reich amounted to "international crimes" thereby superseding the state immunity enjoyed by Germany.

"We are not disappointed," said Paolo Pucci di Benisichi, Italy's chief representative in the case. "Of course, I would have preferred a judgment that was closer to our line of defense."

slk/acb (AP, AFP)