German Court Ruling on U.S. Drone Strikes Leaves Victim’s Son without Redress

NEW YORK—A German appeals court has rejected a legal complaint brought by a Somali herdsman over the death of his father in a U.S. drone strike in 2012, in a case that highlighted the role of U.S. facilities in Germany in the drone program.

On Tuesday, March 19, the Higher Administrative Court of North Rhine-Westphalia in Münster ruled the complaint inadmissible, saying it could not be proved that the herdsman’s father had been killed by a drone attack on the day stated.

Additionally, the court said that it could not be proven that the German government had knowledge about the use of a U.S. military relay station at Ramstein to support the drone strike on February 24, 2012.

The original complaint argued 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 sought a judicial declaration that Germany has committed these violations. 

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

Eberhard Kempf said: “The Higher Administrative Court placed a very heavy burden of proof on civilian victims of U.S. drone attacks and their dependents—to a level that they cannot hope to provide given the high level of official secrecy surrounding the program.”

Viktor Pfaff said: “The court’s judgement in effect upholds impunity for the unlawful killing of an innocent Somali herdsman. His son, our client, has to date received no justice for this grave violation of the most fundamental right—the right to life.”

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. The German government has not officially acknowledged its role in supporting U.S. drone strikes.

Separately, the same court ruled later, on March 19, in a case brought by three Yemeni citizens, that operations at Ramstein must comply with international law—a significant step towards placing limits on the drone program as carried out via the base.

The three Yemenis lost innocent family members in a U.S. drone attack on August 29, 2012. They were represented before the court by lawyers assisted by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, as well as Reprieve.

Eberhard Kempf noted: “The lack of judicial review in our Somali case is all the more regrettable because the court has stated in the Yemen case that ‘the question of whether international law permits armed drone operations . . . is not a political question but a legal question.’”

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.

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.