Evolving Conceptions of
Civilians and Belligerents:
One Hundred Years
After the Hague
There is today a broad consensus on the purposes of international humanitarian law (IHL). It is seen as a set of rules to mitigate the excesses of war and as the correct means of introducing humanitarian protection for civilians caught up in its devastation. “Civilians” and “belligerents” are the two most commonly used categories in this normative order, yet what these terms meant in the past, when the laws were originally created, is still poorly understood. Of these categories the term civilians has, without question, a stronger and more urgent contemporary resonance. For those who seek to mitigate the effects of violent conflict, the primary difficulty is still how best to protect civilians. Lawyers, members of humanitarian relief organizations and international agencies, policymakers, and the public broadly agree that the protection of noncombatants is the most pressing concern.
These norms have a long history, but war itself continues to change shape; new ideologies and technologies challenge common understandings and agreements, even as the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people through political violence continue to claim our sympathy and our concern. It is therefore legitimate to ask what need there is to provide historical and conceptual foundations for these two categories of actors in IHL. Why should we attempt to understand the particular historical wars that inspired their creation, rather than the ones that concern us today? Wars of empire and of conquest do not adequately capture the current state of conflict today: ethnic, national, and civil wars; wars fueled by drug trade; wars involving