Non-combatant is a term in the law of war describing civilians who are not taking a direct part in hostilities, persons – such as medical personnel and military chaplains – who are members of the armed forces but are protected because of their specific duties (as described in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in June 1977); and combatants who are hors de combat ("outside the fight"); that is, sick, wounded, detained, or otherwise disabled.
Article 50 Protocol I defines a civilian as a person who is not a privileged combatant. Article 51 describes the protection that must be given to civilians (unless they are unprivileged combatants) and civilian populations. Chapter III of Protocol I regulates the targeting of civilian objects. Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also prohibits attacks directed against civilians. Not all states have ratified Protocol I or the 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.
Article 3 in the general section of the Geneva Conventions states that in the case of armed conflict not of an international character (occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties) that each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions to non-combatants: They shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, with the following prohibitions:
- (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
- (b) taking of hostages;
- (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
- (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
- Article 51.3 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions explains that "Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities".
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