A civilian under international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of war) is a person who is not a member of his or her country's armed forces or other militia. Civilians are distinct from combatants. They are afforded a degree of legal protection from the effects of war and military occupation. In US parlance, a civilian is also considered one not on active duty in the armed services or not on a police or firefighting force.1
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."3 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".4
In 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions, Chapter II, Article 50 "Definition of civilians and civilian population" indicates that a civilian is not a legal combatant. It also states: "In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian." 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.
The actual position of the civilian in modern war remains problematical.5 It is complicated by a number of phenomena, including:
- the fact that many modern wars are essentially civil wars, in which the application of the laws of war is often difficult, and in which the distinction between soldier and civilian is particularly hard to maintain;
- guerrilla warfare and terrorism, both of which tend to involve combatants assuming the appearance of civilians;
- the growth of doctrines of "effects-based war", under which there is less focus on attacking an adversary's troops than on undermining the adversary regime's sources of power, which may include apparently civilian objects such as electrical power stations; and
- the use of "lawfare", a term that refers to attempts to discredit the adversary by making its forces appear to be in violation of the laws of war, for example by attacking civilians who had been deliberately used as human shields.
In the 1990s and early 2000s it was often claimed that 90 percent of the victims of modern wars were civilians.6 These claims, though widely believed, are not supported by detailed examination of the evidence relating to some of the wars (including in former Yugoslavia) that had been central to the claims.7
In the opening years of the twenty-first 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."8
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 citizens 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.9 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 organisation and participation.10
Under international maritime law and aviation law a distinction is made between crew and passengers that is similar to that of combatants and civilians under the laws of war. Under their own municipal law governments may extend the definition of who is a civilian to exclude those who work for the emergency services, because members of the emergency services may from time to time need additional legal powers over and above those usually available to ordinary citizens.
Officials directly involved in the maiming of civilians are conducting offensive military operations and do not qualify as civilians.citation needed
- Civil resistance
- Civil war
- Geneva Convention
- Guerrilla warfare
- International Committee of the Red Cross
- Law of land warfare
- Laws of war
- Unlawful combatant
- "Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 18 February 2013.
- Jean Pictet (ed.) – Commentary on Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1958), p. 51. 1994 reprint edition.
- The relevance of IHL in the context of terrorism official statement by the ICRC 21 July 2005
- Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War, Hurst, London, 2008.
- This claim was made, for example, by Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 8.
- Adam Roberts, "Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians?", Survival, London, vol. 52, no. 3, June–July 2010, pp. 115–35. Print edition ISSN 0039-6338. Online ISSN 1468-2699. Available at .
- Adam Roberts, "The Civilian in Modern War", Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, vol. 12, T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague, 2010, pp. 13–51. ISBN 978-90-6704-335-9; ISSN 1389-1359. One part of this article, relating to casualties, also appeared in Survival, June–July 2010, as footnoted above.
- Ian Brownlie, African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia, C. Hurst, London, for Royal Institute of International Affairs, pp. 149-59 gives a useful account of the background and origin of the dispute over Western Sahara.
- See for example the chapters on the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines (by Amado Mendoza) and on resistance against apartheid in South Africa (by Tom Lodge) in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009 , pp. 179-96 and 213-30.
- Helen M. Kinsella. The Image Before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction Between Combatant and Civilian (Cornell University Press; 2011) 264 pages; explores ambiguities and inconsistencies in the principle since its earliest formulation; discusses how the world wars and the Algerian war of independence shaped the issue.
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- Geneva Conventions for the protection of war victims
- US DoD definition of the term Civilian, refers to civilian law enforcement agencies