What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is anyone who is not a member of the military. Civilians are important to the functioning of society, and they must be protected from harm in armed conflict. Civilians are often displaced, exploited, and subject to violence in situations of conflict. Finding better ways to protect civilians has never been more pressing.

In the United States, a civilian is someone who does not belong to any branch of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard). Members of the armed forces are called soldiers.

The term “civilian” is a broad one that includes many people with diverse backgrounds, views and responsibilities, including those who work in the field of conflict and humanitarian protection. As a group, civilians are active in shaping conflict environments and experiences of safety and protection.

They also act as agents for protection, often through unarmed practices that are not part of peacekeeping and other externally provided support. They are critical to the implementation of national and international peacebuilding efforts and can have a direct impact on how and by whom conflict-affected populations receive aid and protection.

It can be challenging to transition back to a civilian life after a long period of time away from family and friends. Finding a new social network and building strong connections with civilians can make the transition easier. It can also be difficult to adjust to civilian lifestyles such as balancing home and career commitments, living up to presentation standards, and being on time for work.

Civilians are also concerned about how military operations impact them and their communities. They often want to know about the objectives and rationale behind war plans, and they want to be engaged with decision-making. Civilians bring a wide range of skills and experiences that can be useful in developing, implementing, and evaluating military policies and operations. They are particularly well suited to positions that require a deep understanding of how societies and public institutions function, as they spend their careers learning about a variety of areas such as law, management, and human resources.

In the 20 years since the Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict to its agenda, protecting them has remained a top priority. Despite progress, civilians continue to suffer the most from conflict. In 2018, they accounted for the majority of fatalities across the world; and, as climate change and other environmental challenges continue to intensify, their vulnerability will increase further. Finding better ways to protect civilians is vital for sustainable peace. The international community must redouble its efforts to ensure that all parties uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. This must include ensuring that civilians have access to impartial and independent humanitarian assistance and information. It must also involve finding more effective ways to strengthen civilian oversight and accountability in armed conflict situations. The ICRC is committed to continuing its work in this area. The ICRC has initiated a process of research and expert reflection on three key questions: Who can be considered a civilian for the purpose of conducting hostilities? What conduct amounts to direct participation in hostilities, and thus suspends a person’s protection against direct attack?