In general, a civilian is "a person who is not a member of the military or of a police or firefighting force". The definition distinguishes from persons whose duties involves risking their lives to protect the public at large from hazardous situations such as terrorism, riots, conflagrations, or wars. "Criminals" are also excluded from the category.
Under the law of war, the term "civilian" is a person who is not a combatant and is not a member of the military. It is slightly different from a non-combatant, as some non-combatants are not civilians (for example, military chaplains attached to the belligerent party or military personnel serving with a neutral country). Under international law, civilians in the territories of a party to an armed conflict are entitled to certain privileges under the customary laws of war and international treaties such as the Fourth Geneva Convention. The privileges that they enjoy under international law depends on whether the conflict is an internal one (a civil war) or an international one.
The word "civilian" goes back to the late 14th century and is from Old French civilien, "of the civil law". Civilian is believed to have been used to refer to non-combatants as early as 1829. The term "non-combatant" now refers to people in general who are not taking part of hostilities, rather than just civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross 1958 Commentary on 1949 Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states: "Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, or again, a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention. There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law. We feel that this is a satisfactory solution - not only satisfying to the mind, but also, and above all, satisfactory from the humanitarian point of view." The ICRC has expressed the opinion that "If civilians directly engage in hostilities, they are considered 'unlawful' or 'unprivileged' combatants or belligerents (the treaties of humanitarian law do not expressly contain these terms). They may be prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action."
Article 50 of the 1977 Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions provides:
The definition is negative and defines civilians as persons who do not belong to definite categories. The categories of persons mentioned in Article 4A(1), (2), (3) and (6) of the Third Convention and in Article 43 of the Protocol I are combatants. Therefore, the Commentary to the Protocol pointed that, any one who is not a member of the armed forces and does not take of hostilities is a civilian. Civilians cannot take part in armed conflict. Civilians are given protection under the Geneva Conventions and Protocols thereto. Article 51 describes the protection that must be given to the civilian population and individual civilians.
Chapter III of Protocol I regulates the targeting of civilian objects. Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also includes this in its list of war crimes: "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities". Not all states have ratified 1977 Protocol I or the 1998 Rome Statute, but it is an accepted principle of international humanitarian law that the direct targeting of civilians is a breach of the customary laws of war and is binding on all belligerents.
The actual position of the civilian in modern war remains problematic. It is complicated by a number of phenomena, including:
Starting in the 1980s, it was often claimed that 90 percent of the victims of modern wars were civilians. The claim was repeated on Wikipedia's Did You Know on 14 December 2010. These claims, though widely believed, are not supported by detailed examination of the evidence, particularly that relating to wars (such as those in former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan) that are central to the claims.
In the opening years of the twenty-first century, despite the many problems associated with it, the legal category of the civilian has been the subject of considerable attention in public discourse, in the media and at the United Nations, and in justification of certain uses of armed force to protect endangered populations. It has "lost none of its political, legal and moral salience."
Although it is often assumed that civilians are essentially passive onlookers of war, sometimes they have active roles in conflicts. These may be quasi-military, as when in November 1975 the Moroccan government organized the "green march" of civilians to cross the border into the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara to claim the territory for Morocco - all at the same time as Moroccan forces entered the territory clandestinely. In addition, and without necessarily calling into question their status as non-combatants, civilians sometimes take part in campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance as a means of opposing dictatorial rule or foreign occupation: sometimes such campaigns happen at the same time as armed conflicts or guerrilla insurrections, but they are usually distinct from them as regards both their organization and participation.
Officials directly involved in the maiming of civilians are conducting offensive military operations and do not qualify as civilians.
The International Humanitarian Law codifies treaties and conventions, signed and enforced by participating states, which serve to protect civilians during intra and interstate conflict. Even for non-treaty participants, it is customary for international law to still apply. Additionally, the IHL adheres to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity; which apply to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Although, despite the UN deploying military and civilians to protect civilians it lacks formal policies or military manuals addressing exactly these efforts. The UN Security Council Report No 4: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict provides further evidence of the need for protection of civilians. Recognizing that large-scale civilian insecurity threatens international peace and stability, the UN aims to establish the means of protecting civilians and thereby work to ensure regional stability. Through the UN Security Council Report No 4, first published in 2008, the UN offers ways to support civilian protections in both intra and interstate conflict with a goal of encouraging regional states to police their own conflicts (such as the African Union policing African conflicts). Similarly, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reminded UN Member states that they have common interests in protecting African civilians through a shared "commitments to human security, and its rationale of indivisibility of peace and security."
The Security Council is now involved in the protection of civilians in five main areas of action.
In response to Presidential statements and previous subcommittee work, the UN Security Council held a meeting in January 2009, specifically to address the protection of civilians within the context of the IHL. While no specific outcome followed this meeting, it did lead to the production of a 10-year assessment of Council actions since the passing of resolution 1265 in 1999.
In addition to the UN treaties, regional treaties have also been established, such as the African Union Constitutive Act Article 4(h) which also outlines the protection of civilians and "affords the Union a right to forcibly intervene in one of its member states in 'grave circumstances', namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." This is proposed to indicate the African Union will no longer stand by to watch atrocities happen within the Union. As described by Said Djinnit (AU's Commissioner for Peace and Security) in 2004, "Africans cannot [...] watch the tragedies developing in the continent and say it is the UN's responsibility or somebody else's responsibility. We have moved from the concept of non-interference to non-indifference. We cannot, as Africans, remain indifferent to the tragedy of our people" (IRIN News 2004). Although Article 4(h), while drafted, has not been activated, which begs the question of the AU's willingness to intervene in situations of "grave circumstance."
Regardless of the lead organization (UN, AU, other) "there is clearly a risk involved for international organizations that in assuming a complicated security role such as civilian protection, they may raise expectations among local populations that cannot be met, usually not even by large-scale peace operations with a comprehensive political component, supported by high force levels, overall professionalism, and the political stamina to stay present long-term. The disappointing outcomes, in Africa and elsewhere, have led some to criticize the way in which the decentralization policies have been implemented (MacFarlane and Weiss 1992; Berman 1998; Boulden 2003)."