Victim status: who are civilians? A legal definition

The status of victims - whether they were civilian or not - is a particularly important categorisation for casualty recorders. 37 out of the 40 organisations surveyed either collected information about whether victims were considered civilian, or made a decision on this question.

Civilians, or those protected from attack

Rule 5 of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Customary International Humanitarian Law (IHL) study discusses the definition of civilians, who could be defined either as those who do not take a direct part in hostilities, or who are not members of armed forces as defined in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. Specifically protected groups or people are found in the Customary IHL study under: Rule 25 Medical Personnel, Rule 27 Religious Personnel, Rule 30 Persons and Objects Displaying the Distinctive Emblem, Rule 31 Humanitarian Relief Personnel, Rule 33 Personnel and Objects Involved in a Peacekeeping Mission, Rule 34 Journalists, Rule 47 Attacks against Persons Hors de Combat.

According to Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts 8 June 1977:

  • Article 50: civilians are those who do not belong to any of the organised armed forces of any state/government Party to the conflict, or to any organised resistance movements. It excludes those who take up arms to spontaneously resist invasion.
  • Article 50: “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”
  • Article 41: those who are ‘hors de combat’ are protected from attack.”A person is ‘hors de combat’ if: (a) he is in the power of an adverse Party; (b) he clearly expresses an intention to surrender; or (c) he has been rendered unconscious or is otherwise incapacitated by wounds or sickness, and therefore is incapable of defending himself”.
  • Article 43: medical and religious personnel of armed forces are non-combatants.