Non-combatant is a term of art in the law of war and international humanitarian law, describing civilians who are not taking a direct part in hostilities; persons—such as medical personnel, combat medics and military chaplains—who are members of the armed forces but are protected because of their specific duties (as currently described in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in June 1977); combatants who are placed hors de combat; and neutral citizens (including military personnel) who are not fighting for one of the belligerents involved in an armed conflict. This particular status was first recognized under the Geneva Conventions with the First Geneva Convention of 1864.
Article 42 of Protocol I states that pilots and/or aircrews who are parachuting from aircraft in distress cannot be attacked regardless of what territory they are over. If pilots and/or aircrews land in territory controlled by the enemy, 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 parachute from an aircraft, whether it is disabled or not, are not given the protection afforded by this Article and, therefore, may be attacked during their descent unless they 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 "persons taking no active part in the hostilities" (non-combatants). Such persons 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 judgement 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".
- Customary laws of war:
- ICRC. "Customary IHL: Rule 3. Definition of Combatants". International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved April 2014.
- ICRC. "Customary IHL: Practice Relating to Rule 48. Attacks against Persons Parachuting from an Aircraft in Distress". International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved April 2014.
- Plenipotentiaries. "Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.". International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved April 2014.
- Gandhi, M. (2001). "Notes And Comments: Common Article 3 Of Geneva Conventions, 1949 In The Era Of International Criminal Tribunals". ISIL Year Book of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law (World Legal Information Institute) 11. — A detailed critique of the shortcomings of the common Article 3 of the Geneva Convents.