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 combat medics and military chaplains—who are members of the belligerent 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 nationals (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.
While not all states have ratified Protocol I or the Rome Statute, these provisions reiterated existing customary laws of war which is binding of all belligerents in an international conflict.
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.
- — A detailed critique of the shortcomings of the common Article 3 of the Geneva Convents.