Military Law – International Law Concerning Civilians in Armed Forces

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The Geneva Protocol refers to “armed civilians” (the word “civilian” is also used if the term civilian is offensive). Civilians are persons who are not belligerents, that is, not members of an army or navy. It differs from a combatant, because some non combatants are non-guards or prisoners of war. For example, a prisoner of war may also be regarded as a civilian.

There are many gray areas in between a civilian and a combatant. For instance, a civilian is not necessarily someone who is directly participating in combat. Civilians are often also harmed during combat, even if they are not taking part in combat. A military defense counsel would consider a civilian a protected civilian if he is not directly participating in combat. For instance, if a civilian rescue team is being held by armed forces against their will and that rescue attempt is then turned against them, the rescue team is considered a civilian.

But just how do we decide when civilians are being targeted? When international humanitarian law states that it is a civilian, how does one determine when that action is taking place? When there are conflicts involving both armies, what are the roles of civilians? When are children considered as civilians? The situations that lead to actions against civilians can vary greatly; some battles will involve mistaken targeting, when civilians become victims of mistaken Hezbollah rockets, for instance.

In armed conflicts, the relationship between a civilian and a combatant shifts drastically. During a battle, there is greater confusion and intense firefights. A civilian might accidentally cross an armed conflict zone and become a target. The Geneva Protocol does not state that a civilian may not be targeted, but it does call for respect for civilian rights and for the immediate release of all non-military prisoners.

When humanitarian workers or members of a humanitarian organization are abducted during an armed conflict, they are considered to be prisoners of war. Combatants have a legal right to take part in the enemy’s war against the enemy and to protect their own lives. But taking advantage of a captive civilian’s protection and rights does not necessarily amount to war crime. If the military action is undertaken with the knowledge or consent of the civilian, he could still be taken as a prisoner of war (POW). In fact, even in the circumstances of battlefield death, the accused military personnel would still be accorded full rights and privileges as a civilian, including protection under Article 14 of the Geneva Convention.

As a result of this change in international law, armed forces cannot target civilians engaged in acts of warfare. They are also not allowed to commit offenses against civilians that are intended to deliberately put the civilian population in danger. But if an alleged offender is a civilian, then he is entitled to have an opportunity to defend himself before being tried. The accused is not, however, permitted to hold up trials against civilian victims through the method of military tribunals. The alleged offender has the right to request either a trial by Military Tribunal or a presidential pardon.