German Court to Review Challenge to U.S. Lethal Drone Program

NEW YORK—A German appeals court is to consider a legal challenge to the use of U.S. military bases on German soil to support lethal drone strikes in Africa and the Middle East.

On Wednesday, March 13, the Higher Administrative Court of North Rhine-Westphalia in Münster will hear arguments from lawyers representing a Somali herdsman whose innocent father was killed in a U.S. drone strike in February 2012.

The original complaint, filed in 2015, argues that allowing U.S. bases on German territory to support such drone strikes violates both the German constitution as well as Germany’s Status of Forces Agreements with NATO, under which U.S. forces are granted the right to operate on its territory while respecting German law. It seeks a judicial declaration that Germany has committed these violations.

However, in April 2016, the lower administrative court in Cologne ruled the case was inadmissible, finding there was an insufficient link between the inaction of the German government and the constitutional rights of the complainant. 

The Münster court will now consider the complainant’s appeal against that ruling. 

The drone strike in question was not directed at the herdsman who died but, reportedly, at British-born Mohamed Sakr, who was also killed in the attack.

The complaint asserts that German officials are jointly responsible for the deaths because Germany hosts two U.S. military facilities involved in planning and operating drone strikes in Africa: the U.S. military’s Africa command headquarters in Stuttgart, which is responsible for all military operations in Africa; and the U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein, which plays an indispensable technical role in conducting U.S. drone operations worldwide, including in Somalia.

The identities of the complainant and his late father are being kept confidential from the public for reasons of the family’s personal safety.

The complainant is represented by Eberhard Kempf, Victor Pfaff, and Natalie von Wistinghausen, with support from the Open Society Justice Initiative.

No one has yet been held accountable for the murder of the herdsman and there has been no known investigation into his case. The United States has not officially acknowledged killing him. Germany has not officially acknowledged its role in supporting U.S. drone strikes.

Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the United States has conducted at least 103 drone strikes in Somalia, according to monitoring by New America, compared to 31 during President Obama’s eight years in office. Forty-four strikes occurred during the past six months.

On Thursday, March 14, the Münster court will hear a second appeal related to a legal challenge to Germany’s role in the U.S. drone program, brought by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights on behalf of three Yemeni citizens.

The Open Society Justice Initiative is part of the Open Society Foundations, the largest private funder of human rights work around the world. Its previous litigation on national security–related abuses has included winning judgments from the European Court of Human Rights against Poland, Romania, and Macedonia for cooperating with secret torture and rendition by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.