Lawful combatant

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Lawful combatant is the general term from the Geneva Conventions, where an individual, adjudicated by a "competent tribunal" if necessary, qualifies for prisoner of war status. The critical criteria for lawful combatant status are, according to the Third Geneva Convention:[1]

  1. Being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. Having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  3. Carrying arms openly;
  4. That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

Spontaneous uprising

Under some conditions, the Conventions recognize temporary exceptions to these rules. For example, if there is a "spontaneous uprising" against a surprise invasion of a country, it may be acceptable if they are imprecise on the distinctive insignia, as long as it is their clear intent to put themselves under lawful command, and follow the laws and customs of war.


In the 1874 Franco-Prussian War, the Germans called French resisters francs-tireurs, and unsuccessfully argued for their banning in the 1899 Hague Convention. That convention did establish the four criteria of the Geneva Convention Common Article, but did not stipulate "shooting on sight" or any specific handling other than denial of prisoner of war status. [2]

Modern terrorism

The George W. Bush Administration used the term enemy combatant or "unlawful combatant" for members of al-Qaeda and certain members of the Taliban, but the Obama Administration has stated its preference simply to speak of "lawful combatants", and people who do not meet the standard of lawful combatants.[3]


  1. Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War, held in Geneva from 21 April to 12 August, 1949 (12 August 1949), Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
  2. Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 29 July 1899
  3. Nedra Pickler (March 13, 2009), "Obama admin. to end use of term 'enemy combatant'", Associated Press