The Definition of Civilian in International Humanitarian Law

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The term civilian is often used to refer to people and objects not primarily associated with a military force. This is especially true in armed conflicts where military operations can be expected to result in large numbers of civilian casualties.

The definition of civilian is a key part of international humanitarian law, which must distinguish between combatants and civilians and ensure that all victims of war are protected in accordance with their legal rights. This is an essential aspect of a just and fair conflict and must be safeguarded by all parties to a conflict.

In internal conflicts, such as those of Rwanda 1994; Bosnia-Herzegovina 1992-4; and Kosovo 1998-9, entire segments of the civilian population have been perceived as a primary military target. They bear the brunt of military violence, and have often been denied protection by their governments or other actors.

Those who are unable to defend themselves in the event of attack can be taken by the military as hostages. This is particularly true of children.

One of the earliest traditions in international law dealing with war has been that a party to a conflict should not aim at targets of its own military forces but should focus on those of civilians. This is based on the assumption that attacking civilian persons or goods would provide little military advantage and that such an attack might not be justified by the parties’ obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law.

This approach has influenced the development of international humanitarian law and has shaped the responsibilities of international actors in wars, including those in peacekeeping operations. However, the protection of civilians has also been the subject of controversy.

In order to understand the complexities of this issue, it is important to consider the history of the protection of civilians in war and how this has evolved. The evolution of civilian protection in modern war has been largely determined by the increasing militarisation and sophistication of the battlefield.

Civilian control is essential to a democratic state and to a government and governing process accepted as legitimate by elites and by the population at large. A society without a stable and legitimate government may be tempted to use the military to intervene in the political process, either in an attempt to protect itself from chaos or to prevent external attack.

The degree of civilian control depends on a variety of factors, including the public respect or popularity possessed by politicians, political institutions, or military officers; the bureaucratic or political skill of officials; and the capacity of civilians to deal with military affairs.

It is also crucial to recognise that civilian control in a democratic state cannot be maintained indefinitely. In the most stable states there can be periods of time when the military has a greater degree of influence than civilians, as in the case of the United States following World War II or in a dictatorship that resorted to espionage and assassination in the 1980s.