What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is a person who is not a member of the military or other law enforcement agency. Civilians typically are not involved in military operations or military court cases, but they can be a key part of the legal system that defends people who have been accused of criminal activity. If you have been charged with a crime and are a civilian, it is important to get help from a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and work with you to resolve the case in your favor.

The word civilian originated from a French term meaning “common” or “ordinary.” In the early 19th century, it came to mean someone who was not military or engaged in warlike activities. It later came to refer to the common people, especially in reference to the legal code that governed nonmilitary life. Today, it is primarily used to denote nonmilitary persons.

In international humanitarian law, civilians are defined as “persons who do not take direct part in hostilities.” In addition to the general definition of civilians, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions expanded the category to include members of national liberation movements. This distinction was introduced to better frame the grey area that exists between the more clearly defined categories of combatants and civilians.

For many returning service members, the transition to civilian life can be challenging. Moving less, navigating new school zones, and figuring out relationships with the friends and family who did not serve may be overwhelming at first. However, this change in lifestyle can be an exciting adventure that can help you build on your skills and see the world in a different light. Managing your finances, finding housing, and making the most of your new opportunities will require some adjustment, but there are resources available to help you make this change successfully.

The challenges facing civilians in armed conflict have never been more pressing. In an increasing number of places, state and non-state armed groups impede access to communities affected by conflict, limiting the ability of local and international organizations to monitor civilian harm and hold parties accountable for violations. Meanwhile, climate change and other environmental stresses are increasingly impacting livelihoods, displacement, governance capacity, and food and water security.

In the United States, civilians serve in key roles in the administration and guidance of, and the budgeting for, the military services and the national defense enterprise. These civilians are not merely a cultural, social, or political designation but also possess a unique set of experiences and expertise that can contribute to the national security debate and policymaking process. They have spent their careers learning how to balance a wide range of interests, deal with complex and shifting power dynamics, and lead large institutions and teams. These civilians can be invaluable in bringing the perspectives of all stakeholders to the table. This is why it’s crucial to recognize and support them. In doing so, we can ensure that civilians are not only a priority, but also an asset, to the military and to our nation’s security.