Evacuation of Civilians from the Battlefield

By H. Wayne Elliott 

The battlefield is not a place most people want to be. Soldiers are there because of the mission and their duty. Civilians who find themselves on the battlefield are, in most cases, there by accident or at least unintentionally. Wounds, death, and destruction accompany combat. People will be wounded and perhaps killed. Buildings and personal property will be destroyed. What duty is owed by soldiers to those civilians who find themselves caught up in the fight?

A civilian can be defined by who he is not. Generally, a civilian is a person who is not a combatant and does not take a direct part in the hostilities. On the battlefield the soldier is concerned with whether those present are legitimate military objectives, most often called “lawful targets.” If they are true civilians, they should not be participating in the fight. If they choose to do so they are subject to being targeted and, if captured, might be brought before a judicial tribunal as an unlawful combatant.

Suppose a commander knows there are true civilians in the battlefield area. What obligations are placed on that commander? Must an effort be made to evacuate the civilians? There is no obligation to evacuate civilians from the battle area. At the same time, deliberately endangering noncombatants is a violation of the laws of war. In practice, commanders often avoid the problem of civilians in the battle area by simply giving a warning. This might be accomplished by dropping leaflets, or by making announcements over loudspeakers or radio. At first glance, such a practice might seem unlikely or even blissful. But, as a military matter such warnings make sense (unless, of course, surprise is a factor). First, the commander giving the warning is making a demonstrable effort to avoid harming noncombatants. Second, as a military matter, a warning to civilians that they should remove themselves from the area has the propaganda effect of reminding them that their own military force may be unable to stem the advancing forces. Third, most civilians will move toward their own forces and not their enemy. When that occurs, their own forces may well be presented with a major logistical and tactical problem.

The law actually places the burden of protecting civilians most heavily on the force that has some real control over the civilians. Thus, while an attacking force cannot deliberately target civilians, neither can a defending force use civilians as some sort of a shield against legitimate attacks.

Suppose that the civilian noncombatants are inside a besieged area, such as Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention does provide that the “Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to conclude local agreements for the removal from besieged or encircled areas” of noncombatants. The word “endeavor” clearly shows that such evacuation is not compulsory. In fact, the commander of the besieged place will tend to want to evacuate the civilian noncombatants because they consume supplies and rations. At the same time, and for the same reason, the commander of a besieging force is not likely to agree that persons who are a drain on enemy resources should be permitted to leave. Whether an agreement is reached or not, civilians cannot be specifically targeted. During the siege of Sarajevo snipers killed individuals who were clearly civilians (school-age children, old people, sick, etc.). In the case of some of those killed at Sarajevo, war crimes were committed—not because the civilians were not evacuated, but because civilians were targeted.

As the force advances, the more general obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the occupation of enemy territory might be triggered. When an advancing force becomes an occupying force, the law places that force in the position of an interim government. As such, its responsibilities to the civilian population are much greater and more defined.

The burden when it comes to protecting civilians from the combat effects of war falls on three distinct parties: First, the advancing force, which must make every effort to avoid unnecessary harm to civilians. Second, the defending force, which may well have the best chance at removing civilians from the area before it actually becomes the scene of combat. Third, and most important, the civilians themselves. They must avoid participating in the fight. In fact, they should simply avoid, if possible, being in the area where the fighting occurs.

Related posts:

  1. Civilians, Illegal Targeting of
  2. Civil Wars