Germany on Trial for NATO

When reading the article below, useful to bear in mind that:

  • official investigations revealed that only 2% of the precision armaments used by NATO in the Kosovo war hit military targets.
  • as a defensive alliance, NATO had no authority whatsoever to launch an aggressive war against a sovereign nation
  • NATO had not even sought UN approval for its 78-day bombing campaign


20 October 2003

Germany on Trial for NATO

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro

In a landmark trial that opened last week in Bonn, 35 Serbs are suing Germany over the 1999 NATO bombing of the Serbian town of Varvarin, which killed 10 civilians and wounded 17.

The lawsuit–supported by the human rights group Amnesty International–is the first of its kind in Europe. It could open the way for trials against other NATO member states that participated in the 1999 bombings against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro) at the height of the Kosovo conflict.

The trial opened on 15 October at a Bonn tribunal with a request for 1 million euros ($1.17 million) in compensation for the wounded and the families of those killed in the NATO bombardment. Pacifists demonstrated in support of the victims in front of the courthouse.

Germany has refused to admit responsibility, claiming that its soldiers did not participate directly in the bombing of Serbia. But German lawyers representing the plaintiffs say that Berlin, as a NATO member, is responsible for the attacks. According to the victims’ lawyer, Ulrich Dost, Germany is being sued because it neglected to avoid civilian victims.

NATO cannot be sued as an organization, but NATO member countries can be sued individually.


The plaintiffs and Amnesty International are arguing that on 30 May 1999, NATO bombed a purely civilian target in the town of Varvarin. The bombing occurred in the midst of the NATO campaign aimed at pushing Yugoslav troops, led by Slobodan Milosevic, out of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. At the time, Kosovo was wracked by a violent conflict between Belgrade security forces and Albanian separatist guerrillas.

Varvarin, with 4,000 inhabitants, is situated some 150 kilometers (about 75 miles) south of Belgrade and 150 kilometers north of Kosovo. It contained no military or industrial bases and was not being used at the time for any military transports.

On Sunday, 30 May 1999, the country was celebrating one of the holiest Orthodox holidays, Duhovi (Day of the Spirits), and throngs of people had gathered at the market near the town’s bridge.

At 1:25 p.m., two F-16 NATO warplanes appeared in the sky over Varvarin. Suddenly, they fired two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, sending vehicles and people crashing into the river below. Then the planes doubled back and fired two more bombs, hitting the bridge’s central support column. The bridge collapsed into the Morava River, along with all the vehicles and pedestrians that were on it.

According to a New York Times report that cited eyewitness accounts, after the first strike, people rushed from the nearby market to help those injured on the bridge. Then the planes came back and struck again, unleashing two bombs that smashed the bridge off its concrete supports and sent lethal shrapnel flying up the street into the marketplace.

The casualties continued to pile up. Rescuers who went to help the first victims were hit in the second wave of bombings. Witnesses said blood and body parts were everywhere. A total of 10 people died in the attack and 17 were seriously wounded. The youngest fatality was a 15-year-old girl named Sanja Milenkovic.



“There was no military excuse for the attack,” plaitiffs’ lawyer Dost told the Bonn court last week. “It was directed at civilians. This is a crime.”

Dost said the lawsuit is based on a 1977 protocol of the Geneva Convention. Article 52 of Protocol 1 states that “Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives,” defined as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make effective contribution to military action.”

At the time of the bombardment, NATO defended its actions. Spokesperson Jamie Shea said, “NATO does not attack civilian targets, we attack exclusively military targets and take every precaution to avoid inflicting harm on civilians.”

“This was a major line of communication and a designated and legitimate target,” NATO said in a statement from its supreme commander at the time, General Wesley Clark.

Amnesty International doesn’t agree, and has called the Varvarin bombing proof that NATO ‘did not always meet its legal obligations in selecting targets and in choosing means and methods of attack.’

A follow-up investigation showed the Varvarin bridge could support weight only up to 12 tons, less than the weight of most military vehicles.

Immediately after the Varvarin bombing, NATO decided it would no longer attack certain objectives, such as bridges, when many civilians were likely to be in the vicinity.

Amnesty International argues that such policy changes were “basic precautions that should have been adopted from the start of the campaign, in order to ensure that NATO’s rules of engagement did not allow for breaches of the laws of war.”

The Varvarin bombing came after a series of other deadly “erroneous” bombings by NATO. More than 150 people died when two refugee columns in Western Kosovo were bombed (Meja on 14 April, Korisa on 14 May); more than 80 civilians died in attacks on buses (Luzane on 1 May, Savine Vode on 3 May) and trains (Grdelica, 12 May); and hundreds of civilians died in bombings in Aleksinac, Surdulica, and Nis. In Belgrade, employees of RTS state television and the Chinese Embassy were also killed by NATO bombs.

When the NATO bombing campaign ended, Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that there was “no basis” to open an investigation into NATO’s actions.

Without elaborating, the ICTY review committee concluded that “neither an in-depth investigation related to the bombing campaign as a whole nor investigations related to specific incidents are justified.”

German pacifists demonstrated in support of the victims on the trial’s opening day, carrying banners that read, “Pay damages to the victims of NATO bombings in Varvarin.”


For reasons similar to the ITCY’s, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson rejected calls for an investigation, and he denounced Amnesty International’s allegations as “baseless and ill-founded.”

When the Serb families first asked German lawyers to help them seek a legal judgement against NATO, few observers believed the case would make it to trial. But after more than a year of painstaking work gathering evidence and making the necessary legal submissions, Dost was able to file the Varvarin victims’ claim for damages.

The case has drawn considerable atttention. Even the German Defense Ministry felt obligated to respond, in 2002, that “not a single German soldier or plane of the Bundeswehr participated in the attack.”

But Dost argues that no matter which nation’s planes carried out the assault on Varvarin, Germany is guilty of illegally causing damages to the population by virtue of its membership in NATO and its acquiescence in the bombing raids.

At the Bonn trial, a representative of the ministry, Holger Zetzsche, expressed “deep regret” for the death of civilians. The president of the Bonn tribunal, Heinz Sonnenberger, admitted the case was “a new area” for the German justice system.

Citing German World War II casualties, Sonnenberger also noted that in the past, the courts have ruled against individuals seeking compensation from governments for wartime victims. “Our fathers could not sue Russia or other countries,” he said at a Bonn press conference.

But Zoran Milenkovic, the father of the youngest Varvarin victim, 15-year old Sanja, called for the setting of a new legal precedent. “It is important that the world knows what happened that day,” he said. “This crime should not be forgotten.”

The court expects to reach a decision by 10 December.

–by Sasa Grubanovic


Court’s verdict:

The court found the action admissible but rejected it on its merits. It stated that there is no rule in international law which would give individuals a direct right to claim compensation for violations of that body of law, except in cases where a treaty provides for the contrary, as in the field of human rights. According to the court, relevant international humanitarian treaties provide only for compensation between States themselves. As for the North Atlantic Treaty, it too is applicable only between States. The court also stated that there is no possibility to derive, from the reference made by Article 25 of the Basic Law to the general rules of international law, a right that could be applicable in Germany to directly claim compensation under international law. Finally, no basis for compensation in such a case exists under German domestic law on State responsibility itself, in particular because these rules do not apply in time of armed conflict, international humanitarian law then intervening as lex specialis.

The decision to dismiss the claims was confirmed by the decision of the Higher Regional Court of Köln of 28 July 2005 and Federal Supreme Court of 2 November 2006.