On 30 April, the Appeals Court of Cologne will rule on whether Germany has to pay compensation to victims of an airstrike in Afghanistan. Its judgment is likely to consolidate the new German approach to questions of compensation for armed activities which – given the increasing relevance of litigation about armed conflicts – merits a brief treatment.
In 2009, a German colonel ordered an airstrike against two fuel trucks that were stuck on a sandbank near the NATO camp in Kunduz/Afghanistan. Due to the tense situation in Kunduz, he assumed that the fuel or the trucks could be used for a bomb against ISAF units and thus represented an imminent threat. The airstrike caused the death of 142 individuals. Because many among the victims were civilians, it has become the most controversial modern operation involving the German Armed Forces (leading, amongst other things, to the resignation of a minister of government, criminal investigations and the establishment of a parliamentary investigation).
Seeking compensation for damages on the basis of domestic rules of governmental liability (Amtshaftung), victims filed a claim against the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2013, the Court of First Instance in Bonn rejected the claim (for details see my article in the JICJ). Although it held that governmental liability in principle applies to acts in bello, the Court concluded that the colonel did not breach his official duty to comply with international humanitarian law. A press release, summarizing the oral proceedings and the taking of evidence issued in March, indicates that the Cologne Appeals Court intends to uphold the result of the Court of First Instance.
As I have argued elsewhere (see JICJ article, at p 631-633), the legal assessment made by the Court of First Instance is questionable in several respects. Most importantly, it seems that the colonel did not comply with the customary rule encompassed in Art. 57 (2), a (i) AP I. He failed to do everything feasible to verify that the objectives of the attack were neither civilians nor civilian objects. Certainly, the level of precaution necessary depends on the specific circumstances of the attack. However, in this case the fact that trucks had been stuck for seven hours, and thus did not represent an imminent threat, was not sufficiently taken into account. The adoption of the first instance court’s assessment by the Court of Appeals would therefore be problematic.
While the two courts’ interpretation and application of rules of international humanitarian law is highly fact-dependent, a preliminary aspect is of more general relevance, and highlights the particular approach obtaining under German law: on what basis can Germany be held responsible, before domestic courts, for alleged violations of international humanitarian law? Read the rest of this entry…