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World Court Tosses Suit by Holocaust Survivors

he International Court of Justice in The Hague has overturned an Italian ruling that would have forced Germany to pay a pension to an Italian former slave laborer for the Nazis.

The court affirmed international law, which allows citizens to sue their own governments but prevents them from suing other states except in an international court like that in The Hague.

Survivor organizations say they regret the decision handed down Feb. 3, which bars the creation of a new tool to pressure governments in cases of human rights abuses. But observers say an opposite ruling would have brought chaos to the international legal system, which already offers remedies in human rights cases, even if justice moves slowly.

At issue is a 2004 Italian Supreme Court decision in a suit brought against Germany by Luigi Ferrini, who had been captured by the Nazis in 1944, when he was 18, and forced to work in a brutal slave labor camp in Germany, building underground hangars for the construction of fighter jets.

Unable to secure a pension from Germany, Ferrini had sued the German state in Italian courts, with the help of a German attorney, working his way up to Italy’s Supreme Court, whose decision the International Court ultimately deemed illegal. Under international law, only states may sue other states.

Germany has signed numerous international reparations agreements, including one with Italy in 1961. In addition, a German government and industry fund created in 1999 has made one-time payments to former slave laborers. Still, many survivors reportedly have fallen through the cracks, failing to meet rigid qualifications such as the amount of time spent at forced labor.

The 2004 Italian decision in Ferrini’s favor reportedly prompted at least 80 more cases to be filed in Italy for about 500 plaintiffs. German lawyers, appealing to the International Court in 2008, argued that the Italian decision endangered reparations agreements that had already paid out billions of dollars to surviving forced laborers.

With last week’s final and binding decision in The Hague, the avenue briefly opened by the Italian Supreme Court has been shut for good. But survivors continue to have other options, such as bringing their cases to the International Court itself.


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