Alex Constantine - February 3, 2012
By MIKE CORDER Associated Press
General view of the court showing the judges, rear, the delegation of Germany, front row right, and the delegation of Italy, front row left, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday Feb. 3, 2012, as the International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in a dispute between Germany and Italy over World War II reparations. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
The U.N.'s highest court confirmed Friday that Germany has legal immunity from being sued in foreign courts by victims of World War II Nazi atrocities. The International Court of Justice said that Italy's Supreme Court violated Germany's sovereignty in 2008 by judging that an Italian civilian, Luigi Ferrini, was entitled to reparations for his deportation to Germany in 1944 to work as a slave laborer in the armaments industry. The ruling is expected to stem the flow of civil cases launched against Germany in Italian courts in the aftermath of the Ferrini verdict.
Germany had argued that the Italian ruling threw into doubt a restitution system put in place after the Nazis' defeat that has seen Germany pay tens of billions of dollars in reparations since the 1950s. The 15-judge world court said in a 12-3 ruling that the Italian case violated Germany's long-standing immunity, which has been recognized in international law, from being sued in national courts.
"The action of Italian courts in denying Germany immunity ... constitutes a breach of the obligation owed by the Italian state to Germany," world court President Hisashi Owada said.
Rulings by the International Court of Justice are final and binding on states.
German representatives argued last year that if the world court sided with Italy it would open floodgates for restitution claims by individuals around the world, a situation it tried to avoid in negotiating reparation accords with Israel and with countries that had been occupied during the war, and with specific groups such as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed Friday's ruling, saying it confirmed Germany's view on state immunity.
"The clarification was not only in the interest of Germany but also in the interest of the international community. It is good and it serves all to have legal certainty now," he said.
Westerwelle stressed that Germany's decision to go to court was not aimed at diminishing the country's responsibility for Nazi war crimes.
"The (German) federal government has always recognized their pain," he said. "And, of course, the aim is also not to question German responsibility for the crimes of the Second World War."
The international court rejected Italy's argument that states' immunity did not apply in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by one country's army on the territory of another country.
Italy's chief representative in the case, Paolo Pucci di Benisichi, said the result helped clarify the limits of states' legal immunity.
"We are not disappointed," he said. "Of course, I would have preferred a judgment that was closer to our line of defense."
He said Rome likely would not have launched the case at all had it not been for the fact that Italians interned by Germany during the war were not included in existing reparation schemes. The court's judgment noted with "surprise and regret" that Germany had excluded such victims from compensation.
Although Italy was a German ally during the War, many Italians were deported by Nazi forces, interned in camps and used as slave laborers. Rome's case was supported by Greece, whose citizens have similar claims against Germany.
In 2008, the Italian court decided on the seizure of Villa Vigoni, a German-Italian cultural center on Lake Cuomo, to "enforce" the claims by Italians and Greeks seeking compensation. Germany's protest against the seizure formed part of its appeal to the World Court against Italy. Italy never formally enforced the seizure, pending the result of the world court case, and it will now likely be reversed, Pucci di Benisichi said.
The Greek case involved residents of the Greek village of Distomo, where Nazi troops killed 214 civilians on June 10, 1944 — one of the worst atrocities in occupied Greece.