What is a Civilian?

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A civilian is a person who is not a member of an armed force. Civilians include those who live in cities or towns and those who work at jobs such as teaching, nursing and police work. They can also be those who have retired from military service and now have a job in the private sector such as an accountant or lawyer. Civilians may also be those who have taken part in a national liberation movement during an armed conflict. International humanitarian law outlines the distinction between combatants and civilians but it is not always clear cut in internal armed conflicts or war zones.

Getting back into the civilian world can be a challenge for many people returning from military service. The transition can be difficult especially when a person leaves behind their military crew who become their family. While it is not possible to replicate this group in the civilian world it is important for someone making the switch to try and connect with those around them through friends, coworkers and veteran groups to have a community they can depend on.

One major difference between military life and civilian life is housing. In the military most soldiers are provided with their living allowance or BAH to cover the cost of their home. This allows for soldiers to live in a military base or barracks if they have dependents or in the town of their assignment if they do not. In the civilian world most jobs do not provide this benefit. This can make settling into civilian life more difficult and can lead to financial stress.

The term civilian is also used to refer to areas where it is illegal to attack the military because they are a civilian target. This includes hospitals, schools and other places that have a large number of civilians gathered. This is because of the legal protection under international humanitarian law to protect civilians in times of war.

A civilian can be anyone not on active duty with a military, naval, police or fire fighting organization. In the case of a war or armed conflict this can mean those in cities and towns as well as those that work in the private sector at jobs such as nursing, police or accounting. This does not include those who have retired from the military or those who have taken part in a national freedom struggle during an armed conflict such as a civil war or the Algerian war of independence.

In practice, however, the distinction between civilians and combatants is less clear in internal armed conflicts or in situations of terrorism than it is in international armed conflict or conventional war. This is reflected in the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (API Arts 45.1 and 51.3), which confirm that civilians do not lose their protection against attack unless they take direct part in hostilities.