In an armed conflict, who can be called a ‘civilian’? A ‘protected civilian’? What are the rules governing the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law (IHL)? What protection does the law afford to women? Children? Refugees? Internally displaced persons (IDPs)? What challenges do civilians face in current armed conflicts?

In today’s armed conflict civilians are often the most affected category of persons. They not only face the risk of death and injuries but also that of displacement. All too frequently, civilians are targeted, used as shields or their means of survival – water, food and shelter – destroyed. Women, children and persons displaced by the conflict may be particularly affected by violence and its consequences.

Nature of protection

Protecting civilians during armed conflict is a cornerstone of IHL, which provides a robust framework within which civilians are protected. This protection extends to their direct environment and property, also known as ‘civilian objects’. The nature of the protection afforded to civilians under IHL is seen through two main lenses. Firstly, the principle of distinction draws a line between civilians and combatants, prohibiting any attacks directly targeting civilians or civilian objects. Accordingly, civilians enjoy general protection against dangers that may arise from hostilities, unless and for such time as they directly take part in hostilities. Nevertheless, they may be incidentally affected by attacks against lawful targets, but even then, the proportionality rule must be respected, and the attacker must take all feasible precautionary measures to avoid incidental effects upon civilians. Secondly, the status of “protected person” grants special protection to several categories of civilians, including those in the hands of a party to the conflict who they are not nationals of, and nationals of neutral states present in occupied territories. IHL also protects specific civilian groups such as women, children, refugees and displaced persons, because of additional risks that such categories may face during armed conflict.

Additionally, IHL provides for certain fundamental guarantees. Among other safeguards, everyone in the power of a party to a conflict is entitled to humane treatment without adverse distinction based on such criteria as race, colour, sex, language, religion, national origin or social status. These fundamental guarantees prohibit such acts as torture, degrading treatment, collective punishments, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, slavery, hostage taking and unfair trials.

The following case studies illustrate further issues pertaining to the protection of civilians in armed conflict:

Urban warfare and civilian protection

Increasingly, fighting takes place in cities. This not only poses great risks to civilian populations and infrastructure, but also creates several specific challenges for parties to armed conflicts. The first and fundamental one is ensuring that IHL principles on the conduct of hostilities – distinction, proportionality, precautions – are applied in a manner that protects civilians in urban battlefields, which is oftentimes characterized by the intermingling of civilians and combatants, the proximity of civilian objects and military objectives, and a complex web of interconnected urban infrastructure. In particular, the use of explosive weapons with wide-area impact in densely populated areas continues to raise legal questions and significant humanitarian concern. There is also the need to ensure that sieges and encirclement tactics do not violate the rules on the protection of the civilian population – an issue that has drawn significant attention in recent conflicts.

To understand better the questions and challenges linked to the protection of civilians in situations of urban warfare, see these new case studies:

For more information and insights about the protection of civilians in armed conflict, browse through the following additional resources on “How does law protect in war?:

The Law:

More detailed developments and explanations about civilians, their rights, obligations and protection under IHL can be found in the “The Law”, “Civilian Population” chapter.

A to Z:

Relevant definitions can be found in the “A to Z” section: Attacks,  ChildrenCivilian interneesCivilian objectsCivilian populationCiviliansCivilians taking part in hostilitiesClassification of personsConduct of hostilitiesDiscrimination (or adverse distinction)Displaced personsDisplacementDistinctionEnlistmentFamily reunificationFundamental principles of IHLGrave breachesHumane treatmentHumanitarian assistanceInternally displaced personsInternees,  InternmentJournalistsLoss of protectionLoss of statusNon-refoulementObjects indispensable to the survival of the civilian populationProtected objectsProtected personsProtection of childrenProtection of the civilian populationProtection of the environmentRefugeesSchoolsRace (adverse distinction based on)Rape and sexual violence,  SettlementsSexual violenceShelters,  Stateless personWar crimesWomen.

The Practice:

Additional case studies from the IHL in Action platform, prepared by students from the IHL Clinic at the Kalshoven-Gieskes ForumLeiden University, and the Geneva Academy of IHL and Human Rights illustrate:

To go further: