The German government must ensure that any drone strikes coordinated through U.S. military bases in Germany comply with international law, a German high court ruled Tuesday.
The high administrative court in Muenster did not order a ban on Germany allowing U.S. bases to relay drone data, as three Yemeni citizens had sought in a court filing. The three plaintiffs said they lost family members to U.S. drone strikes in 2012.
The court’s findings run counter to years of military denials that Ramstein Air Base plays a part in Middle East drone warfare.
The court said in a statement that there were “substantial indications” known to the German government that the U.S. drone missions assisted from Ramstein are at least in part “violating international law.”
The court added that the German parliament’s investigation into the National Security Agency’s activity in Germany and official information the court examined prove “the central role” of Ramstein Air Base’s satellite relay station for “continuing armed U.S. drone missions in Yemen.”
The drone allegations began when a former sensor operator said in 2013 that the technology used at Ramstein transfers data between drone pilots in the United States to aircraft on missions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
Air Force officials at Ramstein on Tuesday, when queried about the court’s ruling, said no drones are launched or operated from the base as part of counterterrorism activities.
“We greatly value our longstanding and close relationship with Germany and remain in close dialogue with our German counterparts on all matters related to our bases here and our mutual efforts to support German and European security,” U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa said in a statement Tuesday.
The 86th Airlift Wing also said in 2017 that “no data is relayed through Ramstein for the operation of drones.”
A USAFE-AFAFRICA spokeswoman could not immediately confirm late Tuesday whether that was still the case.
The court said that armed drone strikes are only “legitimate under recognition of the guidelines of humanitarian international law and international human rights protection.”
The U.S. military has conducted drone strikes in Yemen as part of its fight against al-Qaida and extremist groups. That isn’t illegal, even if it did use a base in Germany as part of the effort, the court said.
But statements by U.S. officials cast doubt on whether the drones were focused solely on targets with a “continuous combat function,” the court said. Targeting civilians associated with militant groups but not actively fighting for them could result in extrajudicial killings, the court stated.
Germany’s assumption that the U.S. has not violated German or international law is based on an “inadequate investigation of facts and is finally legally not sustainable,” the court said.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which brought the case forward for the three Yemenis, said in a statement that the ruling was “an important step to place limits on the U.S. drone program via Ramstein, which is contrary to international law.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer H. Svan contributed to this report.
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