Non-combatant is a term in the law of war (also known as international humanitarian law) 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); combatants who are placed hors de combat (i.e., out of combat) by sickness, wounds, detention (i.e., being held as prisoners of war), or any other cause (e.g., descending by parachutes from an aircraft in distress); and citizens of neutral states.
Article 42 of Protocol I states that pilots and aircrews who are parachuting from an aircraft in distress cannot be attacked regardless of what territory they are over in. If pilots and aircrews landed in territory controlled by an adverse party, they must be given an opportunity to surrender before being attacked unless it is apparent that they are engaging in a hostile act or attempting to escape. Airborne forces who are descending by parachutes from an aircraft, whether disabled or not, are not given the protection afforded by this Article and, therefore, may be attacked during their descent. However, they cannot be attacked if they signal and/or communicate to an adverse party with a clear intent of surrendering and therefore given the protection under Article 41 of the same Protocol which prohibits attacking enemy combatants who are hors de combat.
Article 50 of Protocol 1 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.
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.