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Injured civilians come to a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, October 2012

A civilian is a person who is not a member of a country's military or any other fighting group. This is what the word means under the laws of war. Civilians are the opposite of soldiers, who fight in wars.

Civilians are protected by international law from being harmed during war. The treatment of civilians during times of war is covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Prisoners are covered by the Third Convention.[1] These are humanitarian doctrines (ethical beliefs) that most countries follow as law.

Civilians have the right to defend themselves. If they participate in other fighting, they are usually called parisans, and they can be tried for war crimes.

The modern use of the word also has problems:[2]

  • 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 can not 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.


  1. 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.
  2. Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War, Hurst, London, 2008.