International law is the legal foundation on which foreign policy is built. It governs the relations between states and other “subjects of international law”, such as international organisations. The Legal Directorate-General is the prime German player in this field. Its key aim is to strengthen the role of law in international relations. To this end, the Legal Directorate-General advises policy-makers, places its expertise at their disposal, participates in further developing and codifying international law, and is involved in international law dialogue under multilateral auspices, in particular those of the United Nations, the European Union and the Council of Europe. It cooperates with academics and interested members of the public in promoting the concept of international law. A key priority is advancing the peaceful settlement of disputes by strengthening international jurisdiction. The Legal Directorate-General thus represents Germany in proceedings before international courts, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, and is conducting a campaign to persuade all countries to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Its advocacy for the rule of law in international relations includes standing up for human rights and the rule of law in all countries, and represents a fundamental goal of German foreign policy.
The Legal Directorate-General also acts as a kind of solicitor for the entire federal level of Government with respect to international treaties. It advises all ministries during the negotiation and conclusion of international treaties and makes sure that these comply with the standards and norms of international and German treaty practice. It watches over treaties from the moment negotiations commence, until the treaty is signed and ratified, promulgated or published, and ultimately registered with the United Nations.
Issues relating to the right of diplomatic intercourse (ius legationis) that arise in connection with the activities of our missions abroad and the staff there, as well as the activities of foreign missions and their staff in Germany, are also handled by the Legal Directorate-General. The Legal Directorate-General also draws up “Headquarters Agreements”, which govern the privileges and exemptions of international organisations based in Germany. It considers and provides opinions on legal issues concerning the maintenance of diplomatic and consular relations and relations with international organisations.
The Legal Directorate-General examines legal issues regarding the status of foreign armed forces in Germany and of the Bundeswehr abroad. It cooperates with the Federal Ministry of Finance on issues relating to compensation for Nazi injustice. These range from questions regarding the application of the Federal Act for the Compensation of the Victims of National Socialist Persecution to the highly topical issue of “ghetto pensions”.
Together with the German War Graves Commission, the Legal Directorate-General is responsible for German war graves abroad and concludes war graves agreements with other countries. It supports the work of the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen and is involved in decisions concerning the ITS’s legal foundation. It also examines legal issues arising in connection with German unification and succession to international treaties ratified by the GDR.
The Legal Directorate-General is moreover responsible for international law issues relating to the Antarctic and other specific legal fields, such as the international law of the sea, aerospace, international environmental protection and international watercourses.
The second major focus of the Directorate-General’s work is administrative and consular law and other legal matters.
This type of work centres on German nationals and their activities and problems abroad. Should a German national come into conflict with the law and be arrested abroad, should they lose their passport, need assistance or transport back to Germany in a crisis, or simply need to obtain a certificate of inheritance – it is the Legal Directorate-General that is ultimately responsible. The range of tasks is broad.
The Legal Directorate-General offers assistance to Germans in trouble. In other words, it helps look for missing persons abroad, provides aid in the event of death abroad, assists in crisis situations and natural disasters, and, in the worst case, organises evacuation. It also helps settle international child abduction cases.
It provides consular assistance to Germans imprisoned abroad, helps them find legal support and is involved in requests for extradition and assistance in the execution of sentences.
It coordinates consular work at over 200 missions abroad (embassies, consulates general and consulates). Matters covered include issuing passports for Germans living abroad, providing emergency travel documents for German tourists who have lost their passports, authenticating foreign documents, providing certifications and dealing with nationality enquiries.
It coordinates the issuing of visas by the missions abroad, advises them on how best to organise their visa offices and helps optimise the processing of applications. It reviews difficult visa applications itself, and where necessary obtains judicial clarification.
It deals with issues relating to aliens law and asylum, and is responsible for the constitutional aspects of foreign relations and legal questions arising in connection with the borders of the Federal Republic of Germany.
It cooperates closely with European partners to improve consular assistance for EU citizens and on the harmonisation of EU visa policy (Schengen Agreement).
Germans abroad are able to vote in German elections thanks to the work of the Legal Directorate-General, the Federal Returning Officer, the embassies and the consulates general.
Co-formulating German policy on international jurisdiction is another part of the Legal Directorate-General’s work. It promotes the activities of international criminal courts in various ways, lending its support to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the special courts for Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Lebanon.
It provides legal assistance to other states in criminal, civil and administrative matters, as well as on issues relating to international taxation, customs, labour and social insurance law, and negotiates agreements with other countries in conjunction with the relevant ministries.
It also answers enquiries from the public in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.