Laudator: Rolf Gössner
The BigBrotherAward 2020 in the Category “Politics” goes to
The German Federal Government (supported by the coalition of the parties CDU/CSU and SPD), represented by the Chancellor, Angela Merkel (CDU),
for its joint legal and political responsibility for the US drone war, which violates international law and is conducted via the satellite and data relay facility at the US airbase at Ramstein (in the German region of the Palatinate). This is the largest US air base outside US territory, with just under ten thousand military and civil personnel. It is here, on German soil, where weaponised drone operations in the Middle and Greater Middle East and on the African continent are controlled.
These “unmanned” aerial vehicles are used both to spy on target subjects and for arbitrary executions of “terror suspects”, ordered by the President of the day without due legal process. These attacks, to which innocent civilians regularly fall victim, are in violation of human rights, humanitarian international law as well as the prohibition of indiscriminate killings. This is because they mostly occur outside of armed international conflicts, and can only rarely be justified by an imminent threat to life and limb and by the right to self-defence.
This ultimately amounts to a policy of murder, started by President George W. Bush after 9/11 and considerably extended under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Such state-sponsored manhunts that put the general public at risk are clearly insidious and cruel. But, one might ask, what is the connection to Big Brother and the negative award of the same name?
To answer this question, we need a little more background. In the last years and decades, numerous attacks on alleged “terror suspects” have taken place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. Thousands of people have been killed, or more precisely: murdered, many have been injured and maimed.
In summer 2012 three members of the Bin Ali Jaber family were killed in Yemen. A year later, in December 2013, as many as 17 members of a wedding convoi were killed from the air, in Yemen. This has continued into this year in Yemen, in the Middle and Greater Middle East, in Africa and Pakistan. In January this year, the notorious Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was hit during a stay in Iraq – in a drone strike that also claimed the lives of Soleimani’s travelling party and of innocent bystanders, and which led to a dangerous escalation in the Middle and Greater Middle East.
Such drone murderings should potentially put the drone warriors and their accomplices into the dock at the International Criminal Court, for multiple murder and suspected war crimes. Today we will make do with presenting a BigBrotherAward, hoping to put considerations into the spotlight that many may not immediately be aware of.
1. Such drone strikes are always preceded by a more or less prolonged period of spying out and investigating potentially suspicious targets, their patterns of behaviour, social surroundings and local circumstances. Before attacking, the military will create secret rulesets and process communications from mobile phones and computers in order to identify “terror suspects” or “endangerers”, and turn them into potential death candidates. Coordinates, location data, photos and videos that are gained in the process are forwarded to the US via the military base at Ramstein, where they are processed and interconnected with satellite images, telephone surveillance data and intelligence information – including German intelligence – and condensed into profiles of people, contacts, behaviour and threats. These constitute the data that supports the subsequent attack.
It is therefore appropriate to speak of a “cyber war” that makes the drone war possible. A certain degree of suspicion – due perhaps to the supposed membership of a terrorist group and an alleged threat to the US – is all that is needed for someone to end up on the secret “kill list” of the US administration.1
The button to fire the deadly rockets is pressed by the “drone pilot” – almost in the style of a computer game – via a joystick in the US, thousands of miles away. Communication to control the drone and trigger the firing are relayed via the data and satellite relay in Ramstein and via a trans-atlantic fibre-optic cable. The world-wide US drone war is therefore logistically supported and remote-controlled from Ramstein.2 Why Ramstein, of all places? Because the curvature of the earth makes direct control from the US impossible. That is why the US airbase in the German region of the Palatinate is regarded as the indispensable “central nervous system”3 of the US drone campaign.
2. The consequence is: Germany has long become an integral part of the US-led so-called war against terror, which is in violation of international law and entangled in all the other US and NATO wars and war crimes, which are just as illegal. This in spite of Article 26 of the German Constitution, which says that “acts tending to and undertaken with intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for a war of aggression” are unconstitutional and a punishable offence.
That is why the German government is in the focus of a “BigBrotherAward”: It shares legal and political responsibility because it won’t take action against these murderous activities on German territory. The US airbase in Ramstein is not an extraterritorial area, it is part of the realm where the German Constitution applies – even though in practice, the Constitution and international law lose their significance behind the gates of Ramstein. The German government has a legal obligation to act on behalf of the (potentially) affected people – in legal terms, a “guarantor's obligation”.
That is also the view of the Higher Administrative Court of the German state of North Rhine Westphalia: This court rebuked the Federal Government in early 2019 and ordered it to meet its obligation to protect, and to actively investigate whether combat drone operations via Ramstein violate international law.4 Humanitarian international law, which prohibits indiscriminate killings of civilians, is binding to governments, administration and the judiciary of Germany according to Article 25 of the German Constitution. The court found that the government had not yet met its obligation to protect. In fact, the government has so far denied any responsibility and thus tacitly accepted killings that originate from German soil.
The case was brought by three members of the Bin Ali Jaber family from Yemen, who had lost close relatives to an attack with rockets launched from drones and had themselves been severely traumatised. Without the US base in Ramstein, they argued, their relatives would still be alive. The continuing drone strikes left them living in constant anxiety and fearing for their own lives and their families. They called on the German government to take appropriate measures to stop US drone operations from Ramstein. Instead, the German government has lodged an appeal to overturn the ruling.
3. The demands by the complainants in this court case are justified and have our support. These arbitrary killings at the click of a joystick from a safe distance, made possible by the processing and relaying of data in Ramstein, are a form of state terror for which the German government shares responsibility. It could submit US military bases on their territory to the scrutiny of German security authorities – these are obliged to investigate criminal behaviour as a principle of law. Following the drone strike against General Soleimani, members of the German parliament from the Left Party pressed for criminal charges against government members for aiding and abetting murder by failing to take action – but this was unsuccessful: The Federal Prosecutor General refused to start an investigation since German officials had no “obligation to avert the effect” of such actions, and they were not criminally liable for other states’ violations of international law.5
Still, German state institutions are obliged, according to jurisdiction from the Federal Constitutional Court, “to enforce international law within the scope of their responsibilities, when third states violate it”.6 The German government could terminate the agreement on the presence of US forces. After all, the Trump administration is already planning to withdraw part of their troops from Germany – but this does not affect the Ramstein base. It is incomprehensible that the responsible state actors are doggedly refraining from action, and this probably borders on a breach of the German Constitution.
As long as no radical change of course can be seen, protests and interventions from the peace movement against Ramstein as a central data and operations hub of US war policies and against illegal drone wars remain urgently necessary. The drone war against terror is an act of terror in itself, and it continues to produce ever more terror, as former drone pilots have stated in an open letter to then US president Barack Obama in late 2015. The US drone war, they wrote, “is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world”.7 And this is tolerated by the German government.
Congratulations on the BigBrotherAward 2020 to Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governing “grand coalition” in Berlin.
Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestags, Der Einsatz von Kampfdrohnen aus völkerrechtlicher Sicht (WD 2 – 3000 - 118/12; 09/2012): https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/406736/945fddf928288908c6cc2e924cd0a5a6/WD-2-118-12-pdf-data.pdf
Hintergrund: Fuchs, Christian / Goetz, John: Geheimer Krieg. Wie von Deutschland aus der Kampf gegen den Terror gesteuert wird, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2013
Fuchs/Goetz, Wie die USA ihren Drogenkrieg organisieren, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung v. 31.05.2013.
John Goetz / Hans Leyendecker: Todesschlag aus Ramstein, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 16. Oktober 2014.
Norman Soloman, Die Ramstein-Drohnenbasis und der Nonstop-Krieg, in: Netzpolitik.org v. 26.07.2016: https://netzpolitik.org/2016/die-ramstein-drohnenbasis-und-der-nonstop-krieg/
Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestags, Zur Rolle des Militärstützpunktes Ramstein im Zusammenhang mit US-amerikanischen Drohneneinsätzen. Rechtsfragen und Entwicklungen (WD 2 - 3000 - 149/16; 12/2016): https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/490500/7299816e2b2d684467772f817df8d517/wd-2-149-16-pdf-data.pdf
Feroz, Emran: Tod per Knopfdruck. Das wahre Ausmaß des US-Drohnen-Terrors oder Wie Mord zum Alltag werden konnte, Frankfurt/M. 2017
On the case of the Yemeni family victimised in a drone attack: https://www.ecchr.eu/fileadmin/Fallbeschreibungen/Fallbeschreibung_Kurzportraits_Drohnen_Jemen.pdf
Court ruling: OVG NRW, 19 March 2019; 4 A 1361/15 (Urteil des VG Köln v. 27.05.2015; 3 K 5625/14). Press release by the court: https://www.ovg.nrw.de/behoerde/presse/pressemitteilungen/01_archiv/2019/16_190409/index.php
Overview of the court ruling: https://www.haufe.de/recht/kanzleimanagement/tod-per-mausklick-im-drohnenkrieg-vor-dem-ovg-muenster_222_486114.html
Rolf Gössner, Mitverantwortung der Bundesregierung für US-Drohnenkrieg. Klage wegen tödlichen Kampfdrohnen-Angriffs im Jemen führt zu Teilerfolg, in: M. Armbruster, B. Bartolucci, R. Gössner u.a. (Hg.), Grundrechte-Report 2020. Zur Lage der Bürger- und Menschenrechte in Deutschland, Frankfurt/M. 2020, S. 66 ff.
Sicherheitsexperte zu US-Drohnen: Airbase Ramstein spielte wohl Rolle bei Angriff auf Soleimani, SWR 8.1.2020: https://www.swr.de/swraktuell/rheinland-pfalz/kaiserslautern/SWP-zu-Roll...
Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestags, Völkerrechtliche Aspekte des Konflikts zwischen Iran und den USA (WD 2 –3000 –001/20): https://www.linksfraktion.de/fileadmin/user_upload/PDF_Dokumente/2020/WD_2-001-20_Konflikt_Iran_USA.pdf
Criminal charged against members of the Federal Government and other parties involved for aiding and betting by failing to take action in the killing of Qasem Soleimani, filed with the Federal Prosecutor General on 27 February 2020 by Left Party members of the Bundestag https://neu-alexander.de/files/2020/02/27.2.2020-Strafanzeige-1.pdf
1 Whistleblower enthüllt Ausmaß des Drohnenkriegs (translated title: Whistleblowers reveals extent of the drone war), Der Spiegel, 16 Oct 2015: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/drohnenkrieg-whistleblower-veroeffentlicht-geheime-dokumente-a-1058043.html; Constanze Kurz: Kriegsreporter: Drohnen jagen Journalisten? (translated title: War reporters: are drones hunting journalists?), FAZ, 03 Apr 2017: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/aus-dem-maschinenraum/kill-list-der-drohnen-journalisten-auf-der-abschussliste-14954227.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2&service=printPreview; Auch Großbritannien führt eine Drohnen-Todesliste (translated title: The UK has a kill list, too), Telepolis, 24 Apr 2016: https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Auch-Grossbritannien-fuehrt-eine-Drohnen-Todesliste-3191861.html?seite=all
2 See: Fuchs/Goetz, Wie die USA ihren Drohnenkrieg organisieren (translated title: How the US organise their drone war), Süddeutsche Zeitung, 31 May 2013; https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/einsaetze-in-afrika-wie-die-usa-ihren-drohnenkrieg-organisieren-1.1684557
3 Ramstein ist Daten-Drehscheibe der US-Drohnenwelt (translated title: Ramstein is the data hub of the US drone world), SWR, 4 Apr 2014 (no longer available online)
4 OVG NRW, ruling of 19 Mar 2019; ref. (Az) 1361/15
5 Christian Rath, Merkel musste Mord nicht verhindern (translated title: Merkel was not obliged to prevent murder), taz 20 Apr 2020: https://taz.de/Strafanzeige-von-Linken-gescheitert/!5679608
6 ref. 2 BvR 1371/13; BVerfGE 112, 1 (26)
7 Quote in the German original from Der Spiegel, 19 Nov 2015. Source used for the translation: Obama's drone war a ‘recruitment tool’ for Isis, say US air force whistleblowers. The Guardian, 18 Nov 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/18/obama-drone-war-isis-recruitment-tool-air-force-whistleblowers