A civilian in time of war is a person who is not a member of a country's military and any other fighting group. This is what the word means under the laws of war. Civilians are the opposite of soldiers and combatants, who fight in wars.
- Nationals under their own state authority except for refugees of the occupying power living in occupied territory prior to hostilities as long they don't commit crimes after hostilities or that violate their own laws which are also ordinary criminal offenses under the law of the occupied state.
- Nationals of a neutral state who find themselves in a recognized territory of a belligerent nation as long their state maintains diplomatic relations with a belligerent country
- Nationals of a co-belligerent (i.e., allied) state as long their state maintains diplomatic relations with a belligerent nation
The treatment of protected civilians in an international armed conflict is covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Prisoners are covered by the Third Convention. These are based on humanitarian doctrines (ethical beliefs) and that most countries follow them as law.
In an international armed conflict, protected civilians have the right to defend themselves. If they participate in other fighting, they are usually called partisans, and they can be tried for war crimes.
In a non-international armed conflict, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocol II protect civilians regardless of nationality from the harmful effects of war. They can also be tried for harboring non-state armed groups since rebellion is a crime under the domestic law of most nations.
The modern use of the word also has problems:
- Many modern wars are civil wars. In a civil war, it can be difficult to make the distinction between the different parties at war, and it can also be difficult to make a difference between a civilian and a soldier.
- Guerilla warfare and terrorism rely on the fact that the people taking part cannot be distinguished from civilians; they look like civilians, and not like soldiers.
- Depleting the resources of the enemy has long been a method of war. Crops are burned and supplies blockaded so all, including enemy troops, will starve. In modern times strategic bombing may attack weapons factories, transport, and cities.
- Jean Pictet (ed.) – Commentary on Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1958), p. 51. 1994 reprint edition.
- Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War, Hurst, London, 2008.