What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is a person who has not served in a country’s uniformed military services. Civilian is also a term that refers to the non-military portions of a country’s government, and to the non-military sectors of business, industry, and culture.

Civilians have important roles to play in the prevention and mitigation of harm. They have the ability to positively influence conflict-affected populations, and can help bring about greater understanding of the importance of avoiding civilian harm and of protecting and respecting civilians in all situations.

However, a civilian’s status as a civilian does not necessarily guarantee protection from attack or treatment as a prisoner of war (POW). The distinction between a civilian and a combatant is an extremely complex one, and there are many circumstances where the identity of a person is unclear. The most common such cases are where members of armed groups take part directly in hostilities, which is allowed by the law of armed conflict for certain purposes (API Arts 45.1 and 51.3).

Although this does not make them combatants, such individuals do lose their civilian status for the duration of direct participation, and can thus be subject to attacks by the state. The issue of defining the civilian status of armed group members in this way is not easily resolved, and it is essential that the international community works to resolve it.

In the policymaking context, civilians are more than just the people who do not wear military uniforms: they comprise a broad professional group that provides expertise that complements and guides that of professional military advice. Civilian experts may be more diffuse than, and not systematically commissioned as, those of the military, but they are no less real.

At a more pragmatic level, civilians may be distinguished from military personnel by the fact that they do not share the same values and attitudes towards violence and conflict that characterize members of the military. The sensitivity that civilians bring to the issue of the protection of civilians, and their close connections to civilian communities, should be considered when addressing the issues of conflict-affected populations.

For some, reintegrating into civilian life after a career in the military can be challenging. It is easy to feel like you are starting from scratch, especially when it comes to your finances. After paying taxes and benefits, your take-home pay will likely be significantly less than what you received in the military. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available that can help you navigate your transition back into civilian life.