Unlawful combatant, illegal combatant, unprivileged combatant/belligerent or enemy combatant are informal terms used to refer to a person who directly engages in
While the concept of an unlawful combatant is included in the Third Geneva Convention, the phrase itself does not appear in the document. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention does describe categories under which a person may be entitled to POW status, and there are other international treaties that deny lawful combatant status for mercenaries and children.[
The Geneva Conventions do not recognize any lawful status for combatants in conflicts not involving two or more nation states, such as during
The term "unlawful combatant" has been used for the past century in legal literature, military manuals, and case law. However, unlike the terms "combatant", "prisoner of war", and "civilian", the term "unlawful combatant" is not mentioned in either the
The Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949 (GCIII) of 1949 defines the requirements for a captive to be eligible for treatment as a POW. A lawful combatant is a person who commits belligerent acts, and, when captured, is treated as a POW. An unlawful combatant is someone who commits belligerent acts but does not qualify for POW status under GCIII Articles 4 and 5.
A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:
- 1. Members of the
armed forcesof a Party to the conflict as well as members of militiasor volunteer corpsforming part of such armed forces.
- 2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized
resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:
- (a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
- (b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
- (c) That of carrying arms openly;
- (d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
- 3. Members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power.
- 4. Persons who accompany the armed forces without actually being members thereof, such as civilian members of
military aircraftcrews, war correspondents, supply contractors, members of labour units or of services responsible for the welfare of the armed forces, provided that they have received authorization from the armed forces which they accompany, who shall provide them for that purpose with an identity card similar to the annexed model.
- 5. Members of crews [of civil ships and aircraft], who do not benefit by more favourable treatment under any other provisions of international law.
- 6. Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.
B. The following shall likewise be treated as prisoners of war under the present Convention:
- 1. Persons belonging, or having belonged, to the armed forces of the occupied country ...
- Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.
These terms thus divide combatants in a war zone into two classes: those in armies and organised militias and the like (lawful combatants), and those who are not. The critical distinction is that a "lawful combatant" (defined above) cannot be held personally responsible for violations of civilian laws that are permissible under the laws and customs of war; and if captured, a lawful combatant must be treated as a prisoner of war by the enemy under the conditions laid down in the Third Geneva Convention.
If there is any doubt about whether a detained alleged combatant is a "lawful combatant" then the combatant must be held as a prisoner of war until his or her status has been determined by "a competent tribunal". If that tribunal rules that a combatant is an "unlawful combatant" then the person's status changes to that of a civilian which may give them some rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
A civilian "in the hands" of the enemy often gains rights through the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949 (GCIV), if they qualify as a "protected person".
Article 4. Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.
Nationals of a State which is not bound by the Convention are not protected by it. Nationals of a neutral State who find themselves in the territory of a belligerent State, and nationals of a co-belligerent State, shall not be regarded as protected persons while the State of which they are nationals has normal diplomatic representation in the State in whose hands they are.
If the individual fulfills the criteria as a protected person, they are entitled to all the protections mentioned in GCIV. It should be emphasised that, in a war zone, a national of a neutral state, with normal diplomatic representation, is not a protected person under GCIV.
If a combatant does not qualify as a POW, then, if they qualify as a protected person, they receive all the rights which a non-combatant civilian receives under GCIV, but the party to the conflict may invoke Articles of GCIV to curtail those rights. The relevant Articles are 5 and 42.
Part I. General Provisions
Art. 5 Where in the territory of a Party to the conflict, the latter is satisfied that an individual protected person is definitely suspected of or engaged in activities hostile to the security of the State, such individual person shall not be entitled to claim such rights and privileges under the present Convention as would, if exercised in the favour of such individual person, be prejudicial to the security of such State.
Where in occupied territory an individual protected person is detained as a
spyor saboteur, or as a person under definite suspicion of activity hostile to the security of the Occupying Power, such person shall, in those cases where absolute military security so requires, be regarded as having forfeited rights of communication under the present Convention.
In each case, such persons shall nevertheless be treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention. They shall also be granted the full rights and privileges of a protected person under the present Convention at the earliest date consistent with the security of the State or Occupying Power, as the case may be.
Section II. Aliens in the territory of a party to the conflict
Art. 42. The internment or placing in assigned residence of protected persons may be ordered only if the security of the Detaining Power makes it absolutely necessary.
It is likely that if a competent tribunal under GCIII Article 5 finds they are an unlawful combatant, and if they are a protected person under GCIV, the Party to the conflict will invoke GCIV Article 5. In this case, the "unlawful combatant" does not have rights under the present Convention as granting them those rights would be prejudicial to the security of the concerned state. They do, however, retain the right "... to be treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention",
If, after a fair and regular trial, an individual is found guilty of a crime, they can be punished by whatever lawful methods are available to the party to the conflict.
If the party does not use Article 5 of GCIV, the party may invoke Article 42 of GCIV and use "internment" to detain the "unlawful combatant".
Any person who has taken part in hostilities, who is not entitled to prisoner‑of‑war status and who does not benefit from more favourable treatment in accordance with the Fourth Convention shall have the right at all times to the protection of Article 75 of this Protocol. In occupied territory, any such person, unless he is held as a spy, shall also be entitled, notwithstanding Article 5 of the Fourth Convention, to his rights of communication under that Convention.
Civilians are covered by GCIV Article 3:
- 1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed
hors de combatby sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
- (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.
- The Parties to the conflict should further endeavour to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.
If the combatant is engaged in "armed conflict not of an international character" then under the Article 3 of the general provisions of the Geneva Conventions they should be "treated humanely", and if tried "sentences must ... be pronounced by a regularly constituted court"
A combatant who is a POW, and who is subsequently paroled on the condition that he will not take up arms against the belligerent power (or co-belligerent powers) that had held him as a prisoner, is considered a parole violator if he breaks said condition. He is regarded as guilty of a breach in the laws and customs of war, unless there are mitigating circumstances such as coercion by his state to break his parole. As with other combatants, he is still protected by the Third Geneva Convention (GCIII), until a competent tribunal finds him in violation of his parole.
Article 21 of GCIII (1949) reproduces the Articles 10 and 11 of the Hague IV: Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 18 October 1907, but did not include Article 12, which provides: "Prisoners of war liberated on parole and recaptured bearing arms against the Government to whom they had pledged their honour, or against the allies of that Government, forfeit their right to be treated as prisoners of war, and can be brought before the courts". Nevertheless, contained in the commentary on GCIII: The only safeguard available to a parole violator—who has been coerced into fighting, and who has been recaptured by the Power that detained him previously—is contained in the procedural guarantees to which he is entitled, pursuant to Article 85 of GCIII.
In the opinion of Major Gary D. Brown,
Under Article 47 of Protocol I (Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts) it is stated in the first sentence "A
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