What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is someone who is not a member of the military or police or a belligerent group in a conflict. Civilians are not soldiers or fighters; they are the citizens of a country, including their families and friends. Despite this, people in the civilian population can still be caught up in the violence of armed conflicts and can suffer tremendously as a result. They need protection from warring parties and the authorities. Civilians also need to be able to access their basic needs, such as food and water.

The term civilian was coined in the early twentieth century to distinguish those not engaged in armed conflict from soldiers or other members of the armed forces. It is also used to refer to citizens of a country, including those who live abroad. The word is derived from the Latin civilis, meaning “of, or belonging to a citizen” and is also related to the word civilization.

During an armed conflict, civilians are those not directly involved in the fighting and can be caught up in the crossfire or be killed by mistake. They are also those who can be harmed by the destruction of civilian facilities such as hospitals, schools and roads. It is vital to protect civilians as much as possible during a military operation, both because of the moral imperative to do so and because it helps achieve long-term tactical and operational success.

At a more practical level, the doctrine of civilian protection derives from three historically recent bodies of law: international humanitarian law, which started to be codified in the late nineteenth century, and international human rights and refugee law, both of which took shape after the cataclysmic events of World War II. These bodies of law, together with national laws, set standards and norms for the treatment of civilians during armed conflict.

Civilians make up a significant proportion of the population and can be affected by conflict in ways that soldiers are not. For example, armed attacks against civilians lead to massive suffering in the form of massacres, mass rapes and displacement. They can also disrupt essential services such as education, healthcare and water systems and exacerbate conditions for malnutrition and deadly diseases. Civilian communities are often targeted by military forces, but they can also be targeted by rogue militias or armed groups that have no links to any government or authority.

It is important to understand that while civilians may be a small part of the overall military population, they are distinct and have their own needs and issues. It is also necessary to separate the different types of civilians at policymaking levels, since a civilian who works in defense, diplomatic or intelligence institutions does not comprise a single profession like military officership. Civilian experts in these fields have a wealth of experience that complements and guides the expertise provided by professional military advisors. These civilians are not just functionaries but legitimate and necessary participants in the civil-military relationship of policymaking.