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Civilians under international humanitarian law are "persons who are not members of the armed forces" and they are not "combatants if they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war". [1] It is slightly different from a non-combatant, because some non-combatants are not civilians (for example, military chaplains who are attached to the belligerent party or military personnel who are serving with a neutral country). Civilians in the territories of a party to an armed conflict are entitled to certain privileges under the customary laws of war and international treaties such as the Fourth Geneva Convention. The privileges that they enjoy under international law depends on whether the conflict is an internal one (a civil war) or an international one.


In some nations, uniformed members of civilian police or fire departments colloquially refer to members of the public as civilians. [2]


The word "civilian" goes back to the late 14th century and is from Old French civilien. Civilian is believed to have been used to refer to non-combatants as early as 1829. The term "non-combatant" now refers to people in general who are not taking part of hostilities in time of war, rather than just civilians. [3]

The International Committee of the Red Cross 1958 Commentary on 1949 Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states: "Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, or again, a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention. There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law. We feel that this is a satisfactory solution – not only satisfying to the mind, but also, and above all, satisfactory from the humanitarian point of view." [4] The ICRC has expressed the opinion that "If civilians directly engage in hostilities, they are considered 'unlawful' or 'unprivileged' combatants or belligerents (the treaties of humanitarian law do not expressly contain these terms). They may be prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action." [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

Article 50 of the 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions provides: [9]

The definition is negative and defines civilians as persons who do not belong to definite categories. The categories of persons mentioned in Article 4A(1), (2), (3) and (6) of the Third Convention and in Article 43 of the Protocol I are combatants. Therefore, the Commentary to the Protocol pointed that anyone who is not a member of the armed forces and does not take part of hostilities in time of war is a civilian. Civilians cannot take part in armed conflict. Civilians are given protection under the Geneva Conventions and Protocols thereto. Article 51 describes the protection that must be given to the civilian population and individual civilians.

Chapter III of Protocol I regulates the targeting of civilian objects. Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also includes this in its list of war crimes: "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities". Not all states have ratified 1977 Protocol I or the 1998 Rome Statute, but it is an accepted principle of international humanitarian law that the direct targeting of civilians is a breach of the customary laws of war and is binding on all belligerents.

Civilians in modern conflicts

The actual position of the civilian in modern war remains problematic. [10] It is complicated by a number of phenomena, including:

Starting in the 1980s, it was often claimed that 90 percent of the victims of modern wars were civilians. [12] [13] [14] [15] These claims, though widely believed, are not supported by detailed examination of the evidence, particularly that relating to wars (such as those in former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan) that are central to the claims. [16]

Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, October 2012 Wounded civilians arrive at hospital Aleppo.jpg
Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, October 2012

In the opening years of the 21st century, despite the many problems associated with it, the legal category of the civilian has been the subject of considerable attention in public discourse, in the media and at the United Nations, and in justification of certain uses of armed force to protect endangered populations. It has "lost none of its political, legal and moral salience." [17]

Although it is often assumed that civilians are essentially passive onlookers of war, sometimes they have active roles in conflicts. These may be quasi-military, as when in November 1975 the Moroccan government organized the "green march" of civilians to cross the border into the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara to claim the territory for Morocco - all at the same time as Moroccan forces entered the territory clandestinely. [18] In addition, and without necessarily calling into question their status as non-combatants, civilians sometimes take part in campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance as a means of opposing dictatorial rule or foreign occupation: sometimes such campaigns happen at the same time as armed conflicts or guerrilla insurrections, but they are usually distinct from them as regards both their organization and participation. [19]

Officials directly involved in the maiming of civilians are conducting offensive combat operations and do not qualify as civilians.

Civilian protection under international humanitarian law (IHL)

International humanitarian law (IHL) codifies treaties and conventions, signed and enforced by participating states, which serve to protect civilians during intra and interstate conflict. Even for non-treaty participants, it is customary for international law to still apply. [20] Additionally, IHL adheres to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity; which apply to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. [20] Although, despite the UN deploying military forces to protect civilians, it lacks formal policies or military manuals addressing exactly these efforts. [21] The UN Security Council Report No 4: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict provides further evidence of the need for protection of civilians. Recognizing that large-scale civilian insecurity threatens international peace and stability, the UN aims to establish the means of protecting civilians and thereby work to ensure regional stability. [22] Through the UN Security Council Report No 4, first published in 2008, the UN offers ways to support civilian protections in both intra and interstate conflict with a goal of encouraging regional states to police their own conflicts (such as the African Union policing African conflicts). [22] Similarly, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded UN Member states that they have common interests in protecting African civilians through a shared “commitments to human security, and its rationale of indivisibility of peace and security.” [23]

Through a series of resolutions (1265, 1296, 1502, 1674, & 1738) and presidential statements the UN Security Council “addresses:

The Security Council is now involved in the protection of civilians in five main areas of action.

In response to presidential statements and previous subcommittee work, the UN Security Council held a meeting in January 2009, specifically to address the protection of civilians within the context of the IHL. [24] While no specific outcome followed this meeting, it did lead to the production of a 10-year assessment of Council actions since the passing of resolution 1265 in 1999. [24]

In addition to the UN treaties, regional treaties have also been established, such as the African Union Constitutive Act Article 4(h) which also outlines the protection of civilians and “affords the Union a right to forcibly intervene in one of its member states in ‘grave circumstances’, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” [25] This is proposed to indicate the African Union will no longer stand by to watch atrocities happen within the Union. As described by Said Djinnit (AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security) in 2004, “Africans cannot [...] watch the tragedies developing in the continent and say it is the UN’s responsibility or somebody else’s responsibility. We have moved from the concept of non-interference to non-indifference. We cannot, as Africans, remain indifferent to the tragedy of our people” [26] (IRIN News 2004). Although Article 4(h), while drafted, has not been activated, which raises the question of the AU's willingness to intervene in situations of “grave circumstance.” [27]

Regardless of the lead organization (UN, AU, other) “there is clearly a risk involved for international organizations that in assuming a complicated security role such as civilian protection, they may raise expectations among local populations that cannot be met, usually not even by large-scale peace operations with a comprehensive political component, supported by high force levels, overall professionalism, and the political stamina to stay present long-term. The disappointing outcomes, in Africa and elsewhere, have led some to criticize the way in which the decentralization policies have been implemented (MacFarlane and Weiss 1992; Berman 1998; Boulden 2003).” [28]

Civilians in domestic law

Most nations clearly distinguish military authorities from the civil administration via the national constitution; or else in statute law where no codified constitution exists. This usually serves to place control of military forces under the presiding civilian government. "Civilian" is frequently provided as a negative definition where anyone who is not a member of the military is (by default) a civilian. In keeping with IHL, this offers no intermediary status. [29]

Involvement and jurisdiction of the armed forces in civil affairs varies from nation to nation.

In France and Italy, the National Gendarmerie and Carabinieri are military agencies permanently tasked to supporting domestic civilian law-enforcement, usually focussed on serious organised crime and counter-terrorism. Until 2008, the South African Commando System (a volunteer militia within the South African Army) assisted the Police Service in rural areas until they were replaced by specialised Police units. Section 201 of the South African constitution allows military forces to assist Police only with Presidential approval. [30]

The British military does not intervene in law enforcement matters other than by exceptional ministerial approval. During the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege, the Metropolitan Police were able to request military support and the Prime Minister approved deployment of the SAS. Unarmed military personnel routinely deploy in support for natural disasters, bomb disposal, etc. under MACA. [31] [32] In 1969 the British Army was deployed to Northern Ireland under Operation Banner to support the local police in the wake of rioting. This deployment inflamed local tensions, with the Provisional IRA launching a guerilla campaign from 1970 to 1997, during which time controversial actions such as Operation Demetrius took place, as well as atrocities such as the Bloody Sunday massacre. Operation Banner ultimately lasted 37 years, formally ending in 2007 and becoming the British Armed Forces' longest continuous operation. The many problems faced (and arguably caused by) Operation Banner have been influential in policy-making and the reluctance to deploy military forces domestically in anything other than exceptional circumstances (usually relating to serious terrorist threats).

By contrast, German law prohibits entirely the peacetime intervention of military forces within Germany in armed roles. Military personnel may only be deployed in unarmed roles such as disaster relief. This was found to be deeply restrictive during the 1972 Munich massacre when army snipers could not be deployed to assist Munich Police. GSG 9 was later formed within the Bundesgrenzschutz to provide an armed tactical capability within the civilian law enforcement structure. [33]

In the US, the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of the US Army for law enforcement purposes without the approval of Congress. A 2013 directive clarified that this included the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corp. In practice there are many nuances to this. The most notable being that the US Coast Guard operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime but can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy and rendered "military" during times of war. The US National Guard are organised at a State level and under mixed control. Under Title 32, State Governors may deploy National Guard personnel in support of civilian law enforcement - Posse Comitatus would only apply to personnel activated under Title 10 and operating under federal control. [34] [35] [36]

Colloquial usage

In colloquial usage, the term is sometimes used to distinguish non-military law enforcement officers and (in the US) firefighters from support staff or the general public. Regardless, such members are civilians - not military personnel - and are bound by municipal; civil and criminal law to the same extent as other members of the public.

In the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand the term "civilian staff" can refer to police employees who are not warranted constables. [37] [38] [ better source needed ] In keeping with Peelian Principles, the term "member of the public" is preferred for general usage to avoid suggesting that Police are something other than civilian.

In the U.S., "Civilian oversight" or "Citizen oversight" is used to distinguish external committees (typically monitoring police conduct on behalf of civil administrations and taxpayers) from the internal management structure. [39] [40]

Civilian crisis management is a central pillar of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), which in turn is part of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The CSDP is an important instrument supporting the EU’s role as a global security provider.

Currently, the EU maintains civilian missions in countries including Georgia, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. [41]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">War crime</span> Individual act constituting a violation of the laws of war

A war crime is a violation of the laws of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility for actions by combatants in action, such as intentionally killing civilians or intentionally killing prisoners of war, torture, taking hostages, unnecessarily destroying civilian property, deception by perfidy, wartime sexual violence, pillaging, and for any individual that is part of the command structure who orders any attempt to committing mass killings including genocide or ethnic cleansing, the granting of no quarter despite surrender, the conscription of children in the military and flouting the legal distinctions of proportionality and military necessity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Civilian casualties</span>

Civilian casualties occur when civilians are killed or injured by non-civilians, mostly law enforcement officers, military personnel, rebel group forces, or terrorists. Under the law of war, it refers to civilians who perish or suffer wounds as a result of wartime acts. The term is generally applied to situations in which violence is committed in pursuit of political goals. During periods of armed conflict, there are structures, actors, and processes at a number of levels that affect the likelihood of violence against civilians.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Unlawful combatant</span> Person who engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war

An unlawful combatant, illegal combatant or unprivileged combatant/belligerent is a person who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war and therefore is claimed not to be protected by the Geneva Conventions. The International Committee of the Red Cross points out that the terms "unlawful combatant", "illegal combatant" or "unprivileged combatant/belligerent" are not defined in any international agreements. While the concept of an unlawful combatant is included in the Third Geneva Convention, the phrase itself does not appear in the document. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention does describe categories under which a person may be entitled to prisoner of war status. There are other international treaties that deny lawful combatant status for mercenaries and children.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Law of war</span> International regulations of warfare

The law of war is the component of international law that regulates the conditions for initiating war and the conduct of warring parties. Laws of war define sovereignty and nationhood, states and territories, occupation, and other critical terms of law.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Combatant</span> Person who takes a direct part in the hostilities of an armed conflict

Combatant is the legal status of a person entitled to directly participate in hostilities during an armed conflict, and may be intentionally targeted by an adverse party for their participation in the armed conflict. Combatants are not afforded immunity from being directly targeted in situ­ations of armed conflict. The legal definition of "combatant" is found at article 43(2) of Additional Protocol I (AP1) to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It states that "Members of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict are combatants, that is to say, they have the right to participate directly in hostilities." Consequently, on the other hand combatants, as a rule, are legal targets themselves for the opposite side regardless the specific circumstances at hand, in other words, they can be attacked regardless of the specific circumstances simply due to their status, so as to deprive their side of their support.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Non-combatant</span> Civilian who does not take a direct part in hostilities during war

Non-combatant is a term of art in the law of war and international humanitarian law to refer to civilians who are not taking a direct part in hostilities; persons, such as combat medics and military chaplains, who are members of the belligerent armed forces but are protected because of their specific duties ; combatants who are placed hors de combat; and neutral persons, such as peacekeepers, who are not involved in fighting for one of the belligerents involved in a war. This particular status was first recognized under the Geneva Conventions with the First Geneva Convention of 1864.

International humanitarian law (IHL), also referred to as the laws of armed conflict, is the law that regulates the conduct of war. It is a branch of international law that seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting persons who are not participating in hostilities and by restricting and regulating the means and methods of warfare available to combatants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Summary execution</span> Execution immediately after being accused of a crime, without trial

A summary execution is an execution in which a person is accused of a crime and immediately killed without the benefit of a full and fair trial. Executions as the result of summary justice are sometimes included, but the term generally refers to capture, accusation, and execution all conducted within a very short period of time, and without any trial. Under international law, refusal to accept lawful surrender in combat and instead killing the person surrendering is also categorized as a summary execution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Protocol I</span> 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Convention

Protocol I is a 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions concerning the protection of civilian victims of international war, such as "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes." In practice, Additional Protocol I updated and reaffirmed the international laws of war stipulated in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to accommodate developments of warfare since the Second World War (1937–1945).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">War and environmental law</span>

War can heavily damage the environment, and warring countries often place operational requirements ahead of environmental concerns for the duration of the war. Some international law is designed to limit this environmental harm.

Protective signs are symbols to be used during an armed conflict to mark persons and objects under the protection of various treaties of international humanitarian law (IHL). While their essential meaning can be summarized as "Don't shoot" or "Don't attack", the exact conditions implied vary depending on the respective sign and the circumstances of its use. The form, shape and color of these signs are defined by the rules of IHL. Usually, they are easy to draw in order to make even an improvised use as easy as possible, and they were chosen to be as concise, recognizable and visible as possible under all circumstances.

Distinction is a principle under international humanitarian law governing the legal use of force in an armed conflict, whereby belligerents must distinguish between combatants and noncombatants (civilians). Combatant in this instance means persons entitled to directly participate in hostilities and thus are not afforded immunity from being directly targeted in situations of armed conflict. Civilian in this instance means civilians who are non-combatants. The definition of "civilian" under international humanitarian law is by no means settled, as further clarity and explanation is needed in regards to determining precisely when, how and for how long a civilian loses his or her protection from targeting.

The International Institute of Humanitarian Law (IIHL) is an independent, “non-profit, humanitarian association having social values as its objectives”, founded in 1970 in Sanremo, Italy. Its headquarters are situated in Villa Ormond, while a liaison office of the Institute is established in Geneva, Switzerland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geneva Conventions</span> International treaties of war

The Geneva Conventions are four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war. The singular term Geneva Convention usually denotes the agreements of 1949, negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939–1945), which updated the terms of the two 1929 treaties and added two new conventions. The Geneva Conventions extensively define the basic rights of wartime prisoners, civilians and military personnel, established protections for the wounded and sick, and provided protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone.

Military use of schools is a term used to refer to the various activities that national armed forces and non-state armed groups carry out in and around schools, universities, and other education facilities, in support of their military effort. Examples of this include using a school or a university as barracks or bases, for offensive or defensive deployments, for storage of weapons or ammunition, for military training of soldiers, as observation posts, and as a detention facility.

The term international framework of sexual violence refers to the collection of international legal instruments – such as treaties, conventions, protocols, case law, declarations, resolutions and recommendations – developed in the 20th and 21st century to address the problem of sexual violence. The framework seeks to establish and recognise the right all human beings to not experience sexual violence, to prevent sexual violence from being committed wherever possible, to punish perpetrators of sexual violence, and to provide care for victims of sexual violence. The standards set by this framework are intended to be adopted and implemented by governments around the world in order to protect their citizens against sexual violence.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Protected persons</span> Legal term in international humanitarian law

Protected persons is a legal term under international humanitarian law and refers to persons who are under specific protection of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, their 1977 Additional Protocols, and customary international humanitarian law during an armed conflict.

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The prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm in public international law—meaning that it is forbidden under all circumstances—as well as being forbidden by international treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

In international humanitarian law and international criminal law, an indiscriminate attack is a military attack that fails to distinguish between military objectives and protected (civilian) objects. Indiscriminate attacks strike both military and protected objects alike, thus violating the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians. They differ from direct attacks against civilians and encompass cases in which the perpetrators are indifferent as to the nature of the target, cases in which the perpetrators use tactics or weapons that are inherently indiscriminate, and cases in which the attack is disproportionate, because it is likely to cause excessive civilian casualties and damages to protected objects.


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  28. Bergholm, Linnea (May 2010). "The African Union, the United Nations and Civilian Protection Challenges in Darfur" (PDF). Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper Series. Paper No. 63: 11. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-05-02.
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  37. "The Police (Complaints and Misconduct) Regulations 2012". 2012. (2) In these Regulations—....."police officer" means a member of a police force or special constable; "police staff member" means—(a) a member of the civilian staff of a police force, including the metropolitan police force, within the meaning of section 102(4) and (6) of the 2011 Act
  38. "Civilian Law Enforcement".
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Further reading