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Activists and Parliamentarians Join Together to Prevent Armed Drones in Germany

"People are saying they cannot think of any peace movement struggle in recent years that has won such a striking victory. This brings hope to the whole peace movement."

Protesters at Jagel Air Base, the key Bundeswehr drone base in northern Germany. (Credit: DFG-VK)

Protesters at Jagel Air Base, the key Bundeswehr drone base in northern Germany. (Credit: DFG-VK)

Part One: "We Won" – By Nick Mottern

On the night of December 15, I got a call from Elsa Rassbach in Berlin.  She told me I needed to be sitting down, which I did, and told her so.  Then she said: "We won."

In an historic development that will undoubtedly save the lives and sanity of many people in Mali and Afghanistan—a development in which a number of U.S. citizens participated—the German military establishment was forced by a surprising surge of opposition among the MPs in the Socialist Democrat Party (SPD) in the German Bundestag (parliament) to delay plans, at least for now, to arm the Heron TP drones that Germany has been leasing from Israel since 2018. Instead, further discussions of the ethical and legal ramifications of deploying armed drones are to take place in Germany.

"The decision by the German parliament not to arm drones pending extensive further public discussion regarding drone killing is indeed historic."

"Here in Germany some people are saying they cannot think of any peace movement struggle in recent years that has won such a striking victory," Elsa said. "This brings hope to the whole peace movement."

The decision by the German parliament not to arm drones pending extensive further public discussion regarding drone killing is indeed historic. It is the only instance in which a sufficiently broad and deep popular opposition to drone killing has been mounted to effectively thwart a military, political and industry campaign to acquire and deploy killer drones.

Campaign Against Killer Drones Began in 2012

The decision is also a high point in a nearly decade-long campaign that has involved over one hundred peace groups and other civil society, scientific and religious organizations and NGOs. The campaign in Germany began to take shape in 2012, soon after Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), announced plans to acquire armed drones for the German Bundeswehr, in spite of strong international and U.N. criticism of U.S. and Israeli targeted drone killings as well as by the Left Party in the Bundestag in 2010.

In 2013, German activists, NGOs, and religious organizations, with support of the Left and Green parties, founded the network Drone Campaign (Drohnen-Kampagne) "against the establishment of drone technology for war, surveillance and oppression." Several leading SPD members signed the Drone Campaign's first appeal in 2013. 

During the 2013 election campaign, the SPD, the Left and Green parties and activists raised strong questions about arming drones for the Bundeswehr. In addition, beginning in 2013, U.S. whistleblowers began revealing the role of the U.S. AFRICOM bases and Ramstein in Germany in the illegal U.S. drone killings in the Middle East and Africa, leading to further public concern in Germany and international attention.

Thus, when the SPD entered a coalition government with the CDU and Christian Socialist Union (CSU) in 2013, the binding coalition agreement negotiated between the ruling CDU, CSU and SPD parties provided that no government request to arm drones could be presented to the Bundestag for a vote until a thorough discussion of legal and ethical concerns regarding the weapons system had taken place.

Killer Drone Advocates Press Forward

Nevertheless, the killer drone advocates within the CDU/CSU found SPD allies in the Bundestag Defense Committee. In the summer of 2014, they began working on developing a European armed drone, the "Eurodrone," in a partnership led by Germany working with France, Italy and Spain and with seed financing from the European Union.

Despite international protests initiated by the German Drone Campaign in the fall of 2014 that were followed by large protests in subsequent years at the U.S. drone bases in Germany Ramstein and Africom, by 2017 the mood in the German parliament seemed to have shifted toward acquiring and deploying armed drones. Then in June 2017, the first Bundeswehr armed drone project came up for a vote for the first time in the Bundestag Budget Committee, which was asked to approve a contract with German Airbus to lease armed Israeli Heron TP drones as a stopgap "solution" until the Eurodrone, also to be produced by Airbus, would be ready for deployment in ca. 2027.

Following an intense campaign by German groups the SPD leadership decided at the end of June 2017 against approving the Heron TP deal—to everyone's surprise—on the grounds that the required discussions about arming drones mandated in the 2013 coalition government agreement had not taken place. During the 2017 campaign U.S. and Israeli anti-drone activists also wrote to the German parliamentarians, and a preview screener of the documentary film on U.S. drone whistle-blowers, "National Bird", was made available to the German parliamentarians.

After the September 2017 election, the SPD in 2018 again entered into a coalition government with the CDU and CSU. It was agreed that the Eurodrone project would go forward and that weaponizable, though non-armed, Heron TP drones would be leased, but with a provision that the drones could not be armed until after a thorough discussion regarding the legal and ethical issues.

To overcome this obstacle, the German Ministry of Defense (Germany's Pentagon) organized its own series of discussion forums, called #DrohnenDebatte2020, during the pandemic in May early June 2020. The forums allowed for some public participation per online chat and twitter, which was intended to substitute for the public discussion of the legal, ethical and moral issues surrounding drone killing required by the SPD. The Defense Ministry failed to meet the demand of peace activists that drone whistleblowers and victims be heard in the debate.

Anti-Killer Drone Forces Mobilize

But despite the clear inadequacy of the Defense Ministry's "drone debate", by mid-November 2020 it appeared likely that the SPD would go along with the Defense Ministry in declaring that the German debate about arming drones had come to a satisfactory conclusion and that the SPD agreed with the conclusion that killer drones are not less ethical than other weapons and are necessary for the protection of German soldiers.

However, several leading SPD parliamentarians and large sectors of the SPD base disagreed with this conclusion. They wrote newspaper articles and open letters, and they launched petitions. Regional SPD bodies passed resolutions against arming drones. The peace movement and civil society took hope from this and increased their own efforts to persuade the SPD not to agree to arming drones.

Activists of the Drone Campaign and many other German organizations reached out to the swing-vote SPD parliamentarians to explain to them once again the unacceptable hazards of drone killing. Elsa, a U.S. citizen in Berlin who is one of the founding members of the German Drone Campaign, also asked U.S. and Israeli opponents of drone killing to again write letters to the SPD parliamentarians, and KnowDrones.com sent the SPD members of the Bundestag this video: 

On December 3, the Drone Campaign organized an online discussion for ca. ten key SPD parliamentary representatives with the U.S. drone whistle-blowers Lisa Ling ("National Bird") and Cian Westmoreland, moderated by Elsa.  At the request of the SPD representatives, the whistleblowers provided their arguments against arming drones in writing for discussion in a full meeting of the SPD parliamentary group on December 7th.

Immediately thereafter, SPD leaders told the media that the SPD would not consider approving arming of drones for the German Bundeswehr until further discussion had taken place, a position that was confirmed by an internal vote of the entire SPD parliamentary group on December 15th.

The German press is right now heatedly debating the SPD decision, with the CDU, CSU, and the conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP) and ultra-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) opposition parties arguing that arming the drones is urgently necessary to protect the lives of German soldiers. But opponents of armed drones in civil society and in the Bundestag argue that other weapons are more suitable for the supposedly purely defensive purposes of Bundeswehr missions; moreover, no German soldiers have been killed by hostile forces, whether in Afghanistan or in Mali, since 2014.

Renewed Energy in the U.S.

Ideally, the recent victories against armed drones will renew our energy in the U.S. to educate our people and members of Congress to follow the promising lead that has been set in Germany.

These articles provide (here and here) further details about what happened this month in Germany and that the struggle against drone killing will continue there, and almost assuredly, in other European countries.

Protest at the Bundestag: (left to right) MP Dr. Karl-Heinz Brunner, SPD; Burkhard Zimmermann, SPD Berlin-Dahlem; Elsa Rassbach; MP Andrej Hunko, The Left Party. (Credit: Drohnen-Kampagne)                                        

Part Two: The Struggle Ahead - By Elsa Rassbach

Although the request of the Ministry of Defense to arm the Israeli Heron TP drones has been denied by a parliamentary majority for now, that request will likely again be presented to the Bundestag following the September 2021 elections.

And early in 2021, the German Ministry of Defense plans to make a financing request to the Budget Committee of the Bundestag to approve Germany's share of financing for development and production of the joint German-French-Italian-Spanish "Eurodrone" to be deployed by ca. 2027 by five or more European nations as part of a "European security concept". If approved, the total share of financing to be provided by Germany in 2021 alone will be ca 232 million Euros, with more costs each year of the production phase. 

"Through international solidarity we have won a victory that may point the way forward to future international successes in the struggle to prevent armed drones and robots, as well as those who own and command them, from gaining more and more destructive power."

Also in development and coming up for a decision soon in the Bundestag is the next European fighter aircraft, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), with a Next-Generation Weapon System (NGWS), which is to have swarms of autonomous drones  Airbus Germany is the lead contractor for Germany's lease of the Heron TP drones from Israel as well as for the Eurodrone. The final assembly of the Eurodrone would take place at Airbus’ hub in Manching, Germany. Airbus is also a key contractor for the FCAS.

The issue of whether Germany should arm drones will surely be a key subject of debate leading up to the upcoming national parliamentary elections in Germany in September 2021. Following the elections, Merkel's CDU may seek to enter into a coalition government with the Green Party rather than the SPD, and some Green parliamentarians are already signaling that they may be ready to support increased armaments and missions for the Bundeswehr that might include armed drones. 

However, in the Bundestag debate on December 17th, the Green Party supported the Left Party's parliamentary resolution to ban armed drones.

If the opponents of drone warfare prevail in the September elections in Germany—if SPD opponents of arming drones prevail, and if the Green Party representatives hold firm to their current position against arming drones—this could lead European discussions regarding whether Eurodrone should be an unarmed surveillance drone rather than a killer drone as currently planned. Such discussions would surely also need to address other European projects like FCAS and could, in turn, set the stage for the binding international negotiations that have been urgently called for by the U.N., many NGOs, and civil society around the world regarding armed drones and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

Ban Armed Drones?

Although some lawmakers in Germany might merely seek international regulation of armed drones and autonomous robots, some will surely call for a ban of armed drones as well as of lethal autonomous weapons systems. The Left Party, with ca. 10% of the seats in the Bundestag, has called for the ban of armed drones since 2012, and in the November 2020 convention of the Berlin Social Democratic Party, 84% of the SPD delegates voted in favor of a resolution to ban armed drones.

We rejoice and encourage others to rejoice in decision of German parliamentarians to resist arming Germany’s drones—at least for now. Through international solidarity we have won a victory that may point the way forward to future international successes in the struggle to prevent armed drones and robots, as well as those who own and command them, from gaining more and more destructive power.

We can and must turn the tide away from the nightmare world presented by the uncontrolled proliferation of lethal weapons of any kind.

Elsa Rassbach

Elsa Rassbach

Elsa Rassbach is a US citizen, filmmaker, and journalist, who often lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She is a co-founder of the Drone Campaign and leads the work on armed drones in Attac Germany and in DFG-VK (the German affiliate of War Resisters International, WRI). She is also a representative of CodePink and the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) in Germany. Her Sundance Award-winning dramatic film "The Killing Floor," set in the Chicago Stockyards during the 1919 "Race Riot", was recently re-released in North America.

Nick Mottern

Nick Mottern

Nick Mottern has worked as a reporter, researcher, writer, and political organizer over the last 50 years.  He manages KnowDrones.com, a website devoted to education and organizing to stop drone warfare and surveillance.

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