United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Practice Relating to Rule 6. Civilians’ Loss of Protection from Attack
Section A. Direct participation in hostilities
According to the UK Military Manual (1958), “participation in hostilities by civilians” is an example of a punishable violation of the laws of war, or war crime, beyond the grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
The UK LOAC Pamphlet (1981) states that civilians “lose their protection [from attack] when they take part in hostilities”.
The Pamphlet further states that soldiers “must not attack civilians who are not actually engaged in combat”.
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states:
Civilians may not take a direct part in hostilities and, for so long as they refrain from doing so, are protected from attack. Taking a direct part in hostilities is more narrowly construed than simply making a contribution to the war effort.
The manual further states:
Whether civilians are taking a direct part in hostilities is a question of fact. Civilians manning an anti-aircraft gun or engaging in sabotage of military installations are doing so. Civilians working in military vehicle maintenance depots or munitions factories or driving military transport vehicles are not, but they are at risk from attacks on those objectives since military objectives may be attacked whether or not civilians are present.
With regard to internal armed conflict, the manual states: “A distinction is to be drawn between those who are taking a direct part in hostilities, who may be attacked, and those who are not taking a direct part in hostilities, who are protected from attack.”
The UK LOAC Manual (2004), as amended in 2010, states: “Civilians are protected from attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. Taking direct part in hostilities is more narrowly construed than simply making a contribution to the war effort.”
The manual also states: “Under the law of armed conflict, members of the civilian population lose their civilian protection when they participate in hostilities.”
At the CDDH, the United Kingdom voted in favour of Article 46 of the draft Additional Protocol I (now Article 51), describing its first three paragraphs as containing a “valuable reaffirmation of existing customary rules of international law designed to protect civilians”.
Upon ratification of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the United Kingdom issued a declaration stating: “Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Convention unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”
In 2003, in reply to an oral question in the House of Lords asking “what in the circumstances of the Iraq of today constitutes the enemy”, the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence stated: “My Lords, the potential enemy are all those, wherever and whoever they are, who seek to engage British forces in a hostile manner.”
The UK Government Strategy on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict (2010) states: “During armed conflict
, civilians and combatants ‘hors de combat’ are entitled to specific protection under international humanitarian law (IHL)
providing that they are not, or are no longer, taking a direct part in hostilities.”
(emphasis in original)
In 2010, in its closing submissions to the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Baha Mousa and the treatment of those detained with him by UK armed forces in Iraq in 2003, the UK Ministry of Defence stated regarding common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions: “On its face this protection is restricted to armed conflicts not of an international character. However, it is understood to apply in all forms of armed conflict as part of customary international law to set out the irreducible minimum standard.”