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A combatant is someone who takes a direct part in the hostilities of an armed conflict. If a combatant follows the law of war, then they are considered a privileged combatant, and upon capture they qualify as a prisoner of war under the Third Geneva Convention (GCIII). An unprivileged combatant is someone, such as a mercenary, who take a direct part in the hostilities but who upon capture does not qualify for prisoner of war status.[1]


Privileged combatants

The following categories of combatants qualify for prisoner-of-war status on capture:

  • that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  • that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  • that of carrying arms openly;
  • that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

For countries which have signed the "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts" (Protocol I), combatants who do not wear a distinguishing mark still qualify as prisoners of war if they carry arms openly during military engagements, and while visible to the enemy when they are deploying to conduct an attack against them.

Unprivileged combatants

There several types of combatants who do not qualify as privileged combatants:

  • Combatant who would otherwise be privileged, but have breached other laws or customs of war (for example by fighting under a white flag).
  • spies, mercenaries,[1] child soldiers, and civilians who take a direct part in combat and do not fall into one of the categories listed in the previous section, (for example "inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces" would qualify as privileged combatants).[2][3]

If there is any doubt as to whether the person benefits from "combatant" status, they must be held as a POW until they have faced a "competent tribunal" (GCIII Art 5) to decide the issue.

Most unprivileged combatants who do not qualify for protection under the Third Geneva Convention do so under the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV),[4] which concerns civilians, until they have had a "fair and regular trial". If found guilty at a regular trial, they can be punished under the civilian laws of the detaining power. The last time that American and British unlawful combatants were executed after "a regularly constituted court" was Luanda Trial in Angola in June 1976.

See also

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