According to international humanitarian law , combatants are persons who are authorized to engage in acts of war regardless of the legality of the conflict. This allows the war opponent to fight and kill the uniformed combatants in a targeted manner, but also enables them to be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions , for example the status of prisoner of war in the event of capture. They lose their protected combatant status if they fight indistinguishably from civilians, do not openly carry their weapons or wear the uniform of their opponent. In this case, they are only entitled in theory to the humanitarian protection of the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights , including a fair trial and humane treatment. What combatants can fight and how they can be fought themselves are subject to restrictions. Some states have restrictive rules, they use the illegal combatant status .
Grouping of combatants
Members of the regular armed forces
Under Geneva law, combatants are primarily members of the regular armed forces . The Hague Land Warfare Regulations, on the other hand, distinguish between relatives with and without combat missions and only declare the former to be combatants and the latter to be non-combatants , whereby the respective party to the conflict is responsible. In Germany, the military justice system and the administration of the armed forces are civil institutions of the armed forces without a combat mission. Thus they are initially considered non-combatants. Also non-combatant soldiers in Germany are the paramedics and, in general, the former combatants who were put on hors de combat . Wherever military chaplains are part of the force, they are also regularly non-combatants; in Germany they are part of the administration anyway (despite the occasional field suit with pastoral care instead of rank badges).
Anchored in the contract is the obligation of the conflicting parties to externally distinguish their combatants from the civilian population, Art. 44 Para. 3 ZP I. For the regular armed forces, this means wearing the uniform of their conflicting party, Art. 44 Para. 7 ZP I. Like that other, non-uniformed combatants comply with the differentiation requirement is left to the respective conflicting party.
Militias, volunteer corps and the police
Armed groups and paramilitary units, the gendarmerie (or police ) in various countries, but also so-called irregular troops are generally not combatants, but can be incorporated into the armed forces according to Article 43 (3) ZP I of the Geneva Conventions and thus receive combatant status. In the event of a conflict, this must be communicated to an opposing party to the conflict.
- In the Federal Republic of Germany, in addition to the soldiers of the Federal Armed Forces, members of the Federal Border Police had combatant status until 1994 .
Associations such as:
- in Italy - the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanza ,
- in France - the national gendarmerie ,
- in the Netherlands - the Koninklijke Marechaussee ,
- in Spain - the Guardia Civil and
- in Turkey - the Jandarma
do not fall under this regulation, however, as they are already regular parts of the armed forces and thus have combatant status in armed conflicts and wars even without a separate declaration.
Levée en masse
Even the Hague Land Warfare Regulations (HLKO) grants the population of an unoccupied area combatant status if they take up arms en masse against an invasion in the so-called Levée without having had time to set up a proper organization. In this case, Article 2 of the HLKO merely requires open carrying of weapons and observance of the laws and customs of war.
In the Geneva Conventions, this provision was expanded to include guerrilla fighters . Civilians who take up arms during armed conflict, war or national liberation struggle are considered combatants if they carry their weapons openly as long as they are visible to the enemy. You also do not need to be distinguished from the civilian population in the form of identification or uniform in order to qualify as a combatant. You do not necessarily lose your combatant status, but you may be liable to prosecution. Their status as combatants is independent of whether they fight independently or whether they support a war party.
The rights and obligations of combatants were last laid down in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, supplemented by two additional protocols from 1977. These protocols are binding for those states that have ratified them, but also contain essential provisions that are generally applicable customary law. The second protocol lays down the humanitarian principles also in relation to civil war , i.e. the internal conflict of a state that is waged with weapons; the first additional protocol applies to the "classic" state of war between states. The scope of protection of the four Geneva Conventions also applies to combatants and civilians in "armed conflicts in which peoples fight against colonial rule and foreign occupation as well as against racist regimes in exercising their right to self-determination" .
Problem of combatant status in new conflict scenarios
The changed security situation after 1990 places new demands on the definition of combatants. Many conflicts of today do not have a clearly recognizable beginning, often smolder over several years in different intensities and are difficult to assess in their course. Fronts can hardly be defined and numerous actors with opaque interests benefit from ongoing violent conflicts. Irregular fighters ignore international humanitarian law , use perfidious means of war and move in small, dynamic groups without uniforms in the midst of the civilian population. Due to the increasing mechanization of warfare, western states are also faced with the difficulty of clearly distinguishing their own forces. For example, drone pilots are sometimes civilians and steer unmanned aerial vehicles from their home country. However, they indirectly take part in combat operations and, in the case of so-called combat drones, under certain circumstances even actively influence them, which is why they should in fact be regarded as combatants.
- Knut Ipsen: Combatants and non-combatants. Chapter 3. In: Dieter Fleck (Ed.): Handbook of Humanitarian International Law in Armed Conflicts . CH Beck, Munich 1994. ISBN 3-406-38139-1
- Christian Schaller: Private security and military companies in armed conflicts. Conditions of use under international law and control options. SWP study, September 2005. (PDF, 306 kB).
- Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) (PDF, 712 kB)
- Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 on the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II) (PDF, 564 kB)
- Literature on the subject of combatants in the catalog of the German National Library
- Karl Doehring: Völkerrecht. Heidelberg 1999, pp. 251f. ISBN 3-8114-5499-4
- ZP I Art. 1 Paragraph 4 in conjunction with Paragraph 3
- Marcel Bohnert (2013). Extreme experiences as an acid test. On the change in the culture of the armed forces through the deployment in Afghanistan , In: Uwe Hartmann & Claus von Rosen (eds.): Yearbook Inner Leadership 2013. Science and its relevance for the Bundeswehr as an army in action. Berlin: Carola Hartmann Miles-Verlag , pp. 334–351.
- Marcel Bohnert: Guardian from the air. Drones as patrons of German ground troops in Afghanistan In: Uwe Hartmann and Claus von Rosen (eds.): Yearbook Inner Guidance 2014. Drones, robots and cyborgs. The soldier in the face of new military technologies , Carola Hartmann Miles-Verlag , Berlin 2014, p. 28f.