Explained | Why has Germany taken Italy to the International Court of Justice?

The dispute dates back to 2008 when Germany had taken Italy to the ICJ for letting the latter’s courts decide if Germany should compensate victims of Nazi war crimes

May 02, 2022 01:16 pm | Updated 07:41 pm IST

General view of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands January 23, 2020.

General view of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands January 23, 2020. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: On Friday, April 29, Germany filed a case against Italy at the United Nations International Court of Justice at the Hague, the Netherlands, for continuing to allow entities to file cases in Italian courts to claim compensation from Germany against war crimes committed by the Nazi Third Reich during the Second World War.

This is the second time Germany has taken Italy to the Hague for the same matter. It said in its current application that Italy violated the ICJ’s 2012 judgement which protected the jurisdictional immunity of Germany.

What is Germany’s current case against Italy?

Germany submitted in its April 29 application to the ICJ that Italy has repeatedly violated a 2012 ruling by the Court by admitting cases in its domestic courts against Germany, allowing individuals to seek compensation against war crimes committed by the Nazi government during World War II.

The ICJ had ruled in 2012 that Italian courts had violated the immunity of Germany by admitting cases and ruling that the latter pay compensations to entities for World War II-era crimes, despite Germany being outside of their legal jurisdiction.

Germany has said in its current application that after the 2012 ruling, at least 25 new compensation claims had been filed in Italy against the German state for damages arising from Nazi crimes between 1943 and 1945. It further stated that in at least 15 proceedings, Italian domestic courts had entertained and decided upon claims against Germany in relation to the conduct of the German Reich during World War II”.

Germany has also argued in the application that Italy violated its sovereign immunity by taking or threatening to take measures against German-owned properties in Italy. According to Reuters, to satisfy the compensation claims in two cases filed in Italy, its courts are trying to seize German state-owned properties in Rome. An Italian court is due to decide on May 25 whether to auction off four German properties having local offices of the German School of Rome, German Archaeological Institute, German Historical Institute, and the cultural Goethe Institute.

The German state has urged the U.N. top court to take provisional steps to stop the properties from being publicly auctioned off, while the larger case about compensation claims against Nazi war crimes is being considered. It has also asked the Court to direct Italy to make ineffective, the existing decisions taken by its courts against Germany.

Why was the 2008 case filed?

Germany’s 2008 case at the ICJ had arisen out of a ruling by the highest Italian court that Germany should pay nearly 1 million euros ($1.05 million) to families of nine people who were among 203 killed in 1944 by the German army in Civitella, Tuscany. Another case seeking compensation involved a man who was deported to Germany in 1944 and forced to become an enslaved worker at a munitions factory.

Germany had also argued that Italian courts had violated the sovereign immunity enjoyed by the former under international law, making decisions taken by Greek courts in similar matters enforceable in Italy. It referred in particular to a ruling of a Greek court regarding compensations to be paid to those who had suffered in a massacre committed in the Greek village of Distomo by German forces during their withdrawal in 1944.

The 2008 case at the ICJ also had Greece as an intervening party, as Germany’s complaint mentioned decisions taken by Greek courts.

The ICJ had ruled in 2012, that Italy had indeed violated Germany’s immunity while expressing “surprise and regret” that Germany had excluded victims of such crimes from compensation payments.

What reparations has Germany made to countries for World War II?

Germany has maintained that it has already paid billions of euros in compensations for injustices under comprehensive peace and reparation treaties with affected countries since the Second World War ended in the defeat of the Nazis.

In 1951, the Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer had said that Germany would make “moral and material” reparations for the ‘unspeakable crimes” committed by its regime during WWII. In 1952, West Germany had signed two agreements. It had agreed to pay Israel three billion Deutschmarks as compensation for admitting a large number of Jewish refugees who had faced criminal acts at the hands of the Nazi regime.

West Germany had also signed with the Claims Conference, a group of 23 Jewish organisations seeking material claims against Germany’s crimes. Germany would pay 450 Deutschmarks to the Claims Conference, which would then disburse it to the affected individuals. Despite this, East Germany’s communist regime denied such responsibility.

Upon its unification in 1990, Germany agreed to make further reparations to the Claims Conference for war crimes. Since then, it has paid such compensations frequently, amounting so far to $90 billion, according to the Claims Conference’s website.

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