Germany houses Ramstein Air Force Base, from which lethal drone strikes have been and continue to be carried out by the US government in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other places. Why is this problematic? First, because Hellfire missiles launched from drones are being used to eliminate persons in lands where war was never waged, in violation of the United Nations Charter, which requires that member states secure the approval of the Security Council before penetrating the territory of a sovereign nation with the weapons of war.
Until the recent coup in Yemen and the resultant chaos—arguably precipitated by the US drone program—most of the missiles there were being fired at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an ostensibly civilian, not military organization. Only this past weekend, four more unnamed “suspected Al Qaeda members” were taken out by a US drone in Jawf province, in the southern part of Yemen. The deaths in such cases—whether of suspects or so-called collateral damage—are by all appearances extrajudicial executions, what in the twentieth-century would have been carried out covertly, in black ops. Only in the Drone Age has assassination been rebranded as an act of war, in an unfortunate frenzy on the part of US policy makers to appear strong in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
We now know that many of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay were innocent. They were rounded up as terrorist suspects, but later determined not to have been terrorists at all. The Bush administration “tortured some folks,” as Obama put it, and he vowed to call a halt to the mistreatment of detainees. This was accomplished, remarkably, by ceasing altogether to take any prisoners in territories deemed hostile, opting instead to kill them all. US administrators infamously decreed that due process and judicial process are not one and the same and proceeded to act according to a new principle, “kill don’t capture”, under the obviously erroneous assumption (given the findings at Guantánamo Bay) that all terrorist suspects are in fact terrorists.
In none of the drone killings have the suspects been granted, as is required by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the opportunity to defend themselves against the determination by the reigning “kill committee” that they deserve to die. According to the Department of Justice White Paper, US citizens intentionally killed in drone strikes, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who was annihilated in Yemen on September 30, 2011, are not denied “due process”, even when they have never been indicted for crimes, much less allowed to stand trial.
US officials have also insisted that the strikes are permitted under Article 51, the self-defense clause, of the UN Charter. However, that the strikes in Yemen have been acts of self-defense is belied by the fact that, until 2015, the US government sought the permission of the central government before killing on Yemen soil. No political leader can grant or withhold an inherent right to self-defense.
The complicity of Germany in such extrajudicial executions bears special scrutiny. Even if the executions from Ramstein Air Force Base had been carried out at the conclusion of a robust judicial process, fully respecting the rights of the suspects, the European Union prohibits its members from imposing the death penalty even on convicted murderers. In other words, Germany, by permitting such acts of killing to be carried out from German soil, would seem to be violating the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which clearly states in Chapter 1, Article 2(2):
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.
The statement is categorical. There are no exceptions. It does not say
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except by remote-control.
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when deemed worthy of death by the US government.
No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed, except when accidentally killed by the US government as they attempt to kill somebody else.
Three plaintiffs recently filed a suit alleging Germany’s culpability in the drone killing in Yemen of two innocent men, Salim bin Ali Jaber and Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. The plaintiffs argued that Ramstein Air Force Base, located on German soil, is an integral part of the US “kill chain”, without which the victims would not have been slain.
The judge sided with the German government, which argued that it cannot control what other sovereign nations do. But is this true? Is it right? If Germany has granted the US government to operate on German soil, does this imply that within the space where they operate “Everything is permitted”? That sounds like a non sequitur to me. The judge in the case, Hildegund Caspari-Wierzoch, stated that the plaintiffs are welcome to appeal the case, and it appears that they intend to do so.
If the United States has committed war crimes in Yemen, and they were perpetrated from German soil, then the German government was a culpable collaborator. The only way to avoid such complicity would be to expel the wrongdoers or prohibit them from violating international law while operating in Germany.
Does anyone deny that the Vichy regime was complicit in the crimes committed on French soil by the Third Reich? The cases are not so very different, it seems to me.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 2: From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure; Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants Are As Tyrants Do