Unlawful combatant

Unlawful combatant, illegal combatant, unprivileged combatant/belligerent or enemy combatant are informal terms used to refer to a person who directly engages in armed conflict in violation of the laws of war or is fighting outside of internationally recognized military forces. An unlawful combatant may be detained or prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action.[1][2][3]The International Committee of the Red Cross points out that the terms are not defined in any international agreements.[1]

The Geneva Conventions apply in wars between two or more sovereign states. Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention states that the status of detainees whose combatant status is in doubt should be determined by a "competent tribunal". Until such time, he must be treated as a prisoner of war.[4] After a "competent tribunal" has determined that an individual is not a lawful combatant, the "detaining power" may choose to accord the individual the rights and privileges of a prisoner of war as described in the Third Geneva Convention, but is not required to do so. An individual who is not a lawful combatant, who is not a national of a neutral state, and who is not a national of a co-belligerent state, retains rights and privileges under the Fourth Geneva Convention so that he must be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial".[5]

While the concept of an unlawful combatant is included in the Third Geneva Convention, the phrase itself does not appear in the document.[1] 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.[citation needed] In the United States, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 codified the legal definition of this term and invested the U.S. President with broad discretion to determine whether a person may be designated an unlawful enemy combatant under United States law. The assumption that such a category as unlawful combatant exists is not contradicted by the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Celebici Judgment. The judgment quoted the 1958 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention: Every person in enemy hands must be either a prisoner of war and, as such, be covered by the Third Convention; or a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention. Furthermore, "There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can be outside the law",[6] because in the opinion of the ICRC, "If civilians directly engage in hostilities, they are considered 'unlawful' or 'unprivileged' combatants or belligerents (the treaties of humanitarian law do not expressly contain these terms). They may be prosecuted under the domestic law of the detaining state for such action".[1][7]

Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo.

The Geneva Conventions do not recognize any lawful status for combatants in conflicts not involving two or more nation states, such as during civil wars between government's forces, and insurgents. A state in such a conflict is legally bound only to observe Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and may ignore all of the other Articles. But each one of them is completely free to apply all or part of the remaining Articles of the Convention.[8]

International law and practice

The term "unlawful combatant" has been used for the past century in legal literature, military manuals, and case law.[9] However, unlike the terms "combatant", "prisoner of war", and "civilian", the term "unlawful combatant" is not mentioned in either the Hague or the Geneva Conventions. So while the former terms are well understood and clear under international law, the term "unlawful combatant" is not.[5][10]

At the First Hague Conference, which opened on 6 May 1899, there was a disagreement between the Great Powers—which considered francs-tireurs unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture—and a group of small countries headed by Belgium—which opposed the very principle of the rights and duties of armies of occupation and demanded an unlimited right of resistance for the population of occupied territories. As a compromise, the Russian delegate, F. F. Martens, proposed the Martens Clause, which is included in the preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention II – Laws and Customs of War on Land. Similar wording has been incorporated into many subsequent treaties that cover extensions to humanitarian law.[11][12][13]

Prisoners of war

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.

Article 4

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 forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming 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 aircraft crews, 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 ...

Article 5

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".[14] 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.[15]

Persons who are not prisoners of war in an international conflict

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 spy or 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",[16]

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".

For those nations that have ratified Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, are also bound by Article 45.3 of that protocol which curtails GCIV Article 5.[5]

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.

Persons who are not prisoners of war in an internal conflict

Civilians are covered by GCIV Article 3:

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 combat by 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.

Combatants who do not qualify for prisoner of war status

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"[17]

The last time that American and British unlawful combatants were executed, after "a regularly constituted court", was the Luanda Trial as mercenaries.[18]

Parole violation

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.

The Geneva Convention (1929) made no mention of parole, but as it was supplemental to the Hague conventions, it relied on the wording of Hague to address this issue.[19] The authors of GCIII, 1949, decided to include a reference with some modification to parole, because during the Second World War, some belligerent countries did permit such release to some extent.[20]

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".[21] 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.[20]

In the opinion of Major Gary D. Brown, United States Air Force (USAF), this means that "[T]he Hague Convention specified that parole breakers would forfeit their right to be treated as prisoners of war if recaptured. The 1949 Geneva Convention is less direct on the issue. A recaptured parole violator under the Convention would be afforded the opportunity to defend himself against charges of parole breaking. In the interim, the accused violator would be entitled to P[o]W status". [22]


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 mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war".

On 4 December 1989 the United Nations passed resolution 44/34 the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. It entered into force on 20 October 2001 and is usually known as the UN Mercenary Convention.[23] Article 2 makes it an offence to employ a mercenary and Article 3.1 states that "A mercenary, as defined in article 1 of the present Convention, who participates directly in hostilities or in a concerted act of violence, as the case may be, commits an offence for the purposes of the Convention".[24]

Child soldiers

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, (1989) proclaimed: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities".

In a 2003 briefing[25] for the 4th UN Security Council open debate on children and armed conflict by Human Rights Watch they state in their introduction that:

In recent years progress has been made in developing a legal and policy framework for protecting children involved in armed conflict. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children in armed conflict, which came into force in February 2002, prohibits the direct use of any child under the age of 18 in armed conflict and prohibits all use of under-18s by non-state armed groups. By mid-December 2003, 67 states had ratified the Optional Protocol, including seven mentioned in this report (The seven are: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Uganda). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had begun examining governments' reports on steps taken to implement the Protocol. [Articles 8(2)(b)(xxvi), (e)(vii)[26] of] the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998) defines the recruitment of children under the age of 15 as a war crime.[27]

On 26 July 2005, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 1612, the sixth in a series of resolutions about children and armed conflict.[28] Resolution 1612 established the first comprehensive monitoring and reporting system for enforcing compliance among those groups using child soldiers in armed conflict.[29]