What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is a person who does not serve in the armed forces of a belligerent power. Civilians are protected from harm by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

The term “civilian” can also refer to someone who is not a member of an organized armed group of a State party to an armed conflict but performs military functions such as command, planning, or organizational tasks for a non-state armed group. Such people retain their civilian status and do not lose protection from international humanitarian law, except for a limited period of time during which they take part directly in hostilities (API Arts. 45.1, 51.3).

There are many differences between military and civilian life. One of the biggest is pay. Military personnel receive a monthly salary, and most have health insurance that is provided by the government, known as TRICARE. This is in addition to any benefits they may be eligible for through their employers. In the civilian world, employees are paid hourly and do not usually have access to any healthcare coverage.

Another difference is the lifestyle. In the military, a soldier is expected to be punctual and live up to certain standards of appearance and behavior. Civilian jobs often require a similar standard, but the expectations may be less intense. Civilians are also typically encouraged to pursue education and professional development, which is a benefit not often available to service members.

After leaving the military, it can be difficult to adjust to civilian life. Oftentimes, it takes some time to find the right balance between work and home life, especially when transitioning from long distance relationships to being close with friends or family again. Civilians should be patient as they try to reestablish these relationships, and make sure they are open and honest with their friends and family about what their new lifestyle is like.

It is also important to remember that the lines between civilians and service members can be blurred in armed conflicts. In some cases, civilian leaders or groups can dominate a military regime, as was the case with Hassan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front in Sudan throughout the 1990s. This type of situation should be considered when making policy regarding the treatment of civilians in armed conflicts.

Nations should ensure that there are procedures in place to mitigate and respond to civilian harm resulting from military operations. This is not only a moral imperative, but it can also help foster better civilian-military relations. Civilian harm is a common concern in armed conflicts, and it can jeopardize hard-earned tactical and operational successes. Nations should address civilian harm through a variety of means, from medical assistance to amends mechanisms. These actions will help civilians feel safe and supported by their military allies, and will allow them to continue contributing to the success of a conflict. This is the best way to prevent the reemergence of conflict, and to protect civilian populations. It is the responsibility of all militaries to respect and protect civilians.