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Transatlantic relations

Berlin powerless to challenge US drone operations at Ramstein air base

The US Air Force base at Ramstein is reportedly a hub for coordinating Washington’s global drone war. Although the revelation has stirred controversy in Germany, Berlin has little political leeway to challenge the US.

Statements made by Brandon Bryant, a former drone pilot for the US Air Force, reveal that Germany plays a greater role in the US drone war than previously thought.

"The entire drone war of the US military wouldn't be possible without Germany," Bryant told German media. During his time in the US Air Force, Bryant flew more than 1,000 operations from the US.

The current debate centers around the US Ramstein Air Base in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The pilot controlling the drones is in the US, but with the long distance between the operational area and the US, the data from the remote controlled drones is transmitted via satellite to Germany and then sent via fiber optic cable back to America. What's more, live pictures taken from the drone operations are analyzed in Germany and compared with intelligence.

For years the US has been using drones to fight terrorism in Africa, the Middle East and in the Pakistani-Afghan border region. Since 2004, the Investigative Bureau of Journalism estimates there have been 383 US drone strikes in the Pakistani-Afghan border region alone. At least 2,300 people have been killed, among them 416 civilians.

Foreign policy spokesperson for the Greens party, Omid Nouripour, called on the government to take action against the potential involvement of US air force bases stationed Germany in drone attacks.

"It is shameful that the German government simply closes its eyes to violations of international law on German territory," said Nouripour in an interview with the news agency DPA.

A MQ-9 Reaper Drone
(Foto: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The MQ-9-Reaper drone is used by the US in the war against terror

Legal grey area

But there are differing views on whether drone strikes violate international law. In many cases, the strikes are secret. The border regions, where the drone assaults take place, are often difficult to access even for the country's government.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International accuse the US of violating international law. However, Washington sees itself in a cross-border war against terror – a conflict with al Qaeda and its allies, not particular countries. In such conflicts, persons directly involved in fighting are deemed legitimate targets. Therefore, the US argues, killing such a person would not violate international law.

"If the execution of drone attacks does not violate international law, it is not a problem," said Andreas Zimmermann, professor of international law at the University of Potsdam.

The deployment of US troops in Germany has been regulated since the 1950s with the NATO Status of Forces Agreement. Therefore "military forces and civilian personnel are allowed to take required measures for the satisfactory fulfillment of its defense obligations on the provided premises." And this applies to drone attacks according to US legal interpretation.

But even if Germany believed international law had been violated, it would be difficult for Berlin to take legal action. Jurisdiction lies with the US. The German government could terminate the Status of Forces agreement, said Zimmermann, "but that would be a huge political decision that would question the entire alliance."

A pilot's heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission
(Foto: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Pictures like this from the Reaper drone are allegedly sent to the US Airbase in Ramstein

Little political leeway

The German government could use political measures, says Zimmermann.

"If there is evidence the US has violated international law on German territory, the German government could demand that the US stops these acts," he said.

But for that, the German government needs to know about it. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert outlined what is known at a media conference on Friday (04.04.2014):

"The US government has confirmed that such armed and remote aircrafts are not flown or controlled from US bases in Germany," he said.

The German government has never specifically asked Washington, giving America the opportunity to avoid the issue, said Marcel Dickow from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The main question is "whether these operations would be possible without American technology based in Germany. And without the analysis, the risk assessment and the evaluation of whether it is a target person or not, the attacks would not be carried out," he said.

Apparently the German government intends to ask the US for more specific information relating to the drone program. Seibert has indicated the government will demand a statement from the US about the new allegations. Nevertheless, it is a politically delicate question.

"What do you do against an ally who possibly violates international law from your own territory?" asked Marcel Dickow. "The Americans are the most important strategic partner. You don't easily challenge such a partner, particularly when you use the same tools and values in the common war against international terrorism."

Not much more can be expected other than a protest behind closed doors.

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