Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Germany: Court Dismisses Lawsuit Concerning U.S. Drone Attacks in Yemen

(June 17, 2015) On May 27, 2015, the Administrative Trial Court of Cologne (Verwaltungsgericht Köln, VG Köln) dismissed a lawsuit by three Yemeni citizens who alleged that the German government violated their right to life, as established by the German Basic Law, by allowing the U.S. government to use the air base Ramstein, located in Germany, to relay signals and data for drone attacks in Yemen. (VG Köln, May 27, 2015, Docket No. Az. 3 K 5625/14, JUSTIZ-ONLINE (Justice portal of North Rhine-Westphalia) (in German); Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany [Basic Law], art. 2, ¶ 2, sentence 1 (May 23, 1949), BGBl. I at 1 (as amended), GERMAN LAWS ONLINE (unofficial English translation).)

The Court allowed an appeal of the decision, which the plaintiffs considered a victory in and of itself. (Kate Connolly, Court Dismisses Claim of German Complicity in Yemeni Drone Killings, GUARDIAN (May 27, 2015).)

The same plaintiffs have commenced a parallel suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking that Court to declare that the drone strike in Yemen was unlawful. (Scott Shane, Families of Drone Strike Victims in Yemen File Suit in Washington, NEW YORK TIMES (June 8, 2015).)


The three plaintiffs are Yemeni citizens who live in Yemen. In their lawsuit they stated that starting in 2012, the United States commenced “signature strikes” for which human targets are selected according to indicators that intelligence analysts associate with terrorist behavior without specifically knowing the identity of the person. The drone operators are physically located in the United States but submit data via fiber optic cables to Ramstein, where it is then transmitted via a data relay satellite to the drone. The plaintiffs alleged that the German government was informed about the data relay satellite and its potential use for drone attacks in 2010, despite official denials to the contrary. (VG Köln, decision of May 27, 2015, margin nos. [M.N.] 4, 5, supra.)

The plaintiffs declared that they constantly fear for their lives, because a large number of drone strikes target the Hadramout region where they live. An attack on August 29, 2012 killed their close relatives, who were not part of Al-Qaeda and who in fact publicly spoke out against Al-Qaeda atrocities. (Id. at M.N. 6.) The plaintiffs asserted that the right to life set forth in article 2, paragraph 2, sentence 1 of the German Basic Law entails the state’s duty to protect everyone’s basic rights from infringement by third parties, even if the infringement emanates from a foreign state.

In addition, they alleged that Germany had a duty to protect, because the drone war violated international law under which the German government is obligated not to condone such actions. (Id. at M.N. 8 & 9.) They therefore asked the Court to direct the German government to take appropriate measures to stop using Ramstein to transmit data for drone attacks or, alternatively, to declare that not taking appropriate measures to stop the aforementioned practice was unlawful. (Id. at M.N. 11.)

The German government contended that it had no definite knowledge that the Ramstein Air Base was used for drone attacks. The U.S. government had assured them that Germany was not used to launch drone attacks and that all U.S. actions on German territory adhered to German law. Furthermore, even if the relay satellite in Ramstein was used to transmit data for drone attacks in Yemen, the German government had no legal basis to interfere. (Id. at M.N. 16.)


The Court dismissed the lawsuit, but identified important factors to determine the scope of basic rights. It stated that the basic rights of the plaintiffs were not infringed, because the drone attacks were conducted by the U.S. government with the consent of the Yemeni government; neither nation is bound by German basic rights. (Id. at 27.) The Court then reasoned that the German government’s duty to protect is nevertheless not completely ruled out. The majority view of the Court held that the basic rights bind the state sovereign abroad if there is a sufficient connection to the state’s activities and that the basic rights form part of an objective value system. (Id. at 38 & 40.)

The Court ruled that even though there was a sufficient territorial connection to trigger a duty to protect for the German government, there was no corresponding duty to act as demanded by the plaintiffs. (Id. at 55.) The Basic Law only grants protection of basic rights as a general duty, but does not define it further. The branches of government have broad discretion as to how to achieve these duties; this discretion is subject only to limited judicial review. (Id. at 59.) They have even more discretion if the infringement of basic rights takes place abroad, because the Executive enjoys broad discretionary powers in foreign affairs. (Id. at 70.)

The Court stated that the efforts of the German government were not “evidently insufficient.” It found that the requirements of the duty to protect were fulfilled by the German government’s consulting with the U.S. government, its acceptance of U.S. assertions that drone attacks are carried out in accordance with international law, and its belief that the Ramstein Air Base is used in accordance with German and U.S. law. (Id. at 87, 88, & 91.) Political consultations are a classic instrument of foreign policy and therefore not evidently unsuitable, in the Court’s view. (Id. at 92.)

The Court allowed the plaintiffs to appeal the decision because of the fundamental legal importance of the case. (Id. at 104.)