What are the consequences of civilians picking up arms (such as Molotov cocktails) to defend their cities?

By giving orders for the Russian military to fire on civilians in cities, those who issue the order and the soldiers would be culpable for war crimes.

It would appear that Ukrainian civilians have every right to defend their cities by attacking advancing soldiers using all means at their disposal.

Does civilians' defence of their cities absolve advancing soldiers of war crimes?


The question is not about the fate of the civilians, but that of the soldiers.

Let's look at a more distant example.

Under command from the Nazi or the Soviet leadership, soldiers were given orders to enter residential neighborhoods, kill some civilians, and capture others—sending them to Nazi extermination camps or the Gulag.

After the hostilities ended some soldiers and some civilians survived. The soldiers are prosecuted at Nuremberg or The Hague, and some civilians are ready to testify as eyewitnesses pinpointing the attacking soldiers. Is a defence of "but the civilians I was shooting/capturing were actively throwing Molotov cocktails on me, and hence they were legitimate targets" a viable defence against a war crimes charge?

  • 1
    Combatants are combatants regardless of their employment status
    – user35069
    Mar 1, 2022 at 7:20
  • @Rick I assume that would apply to civilians who voluntarily became combatants. Not to other civilians, and not to civilians who act in self defence.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 1, 2022 at 9:02
  • 1
    Note that using cluster bombs and thermobaric bombs is always a war crime, whether against civilians or against regular soldiers. And both seem to have happened.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 1, 2022 at 9:05
  • 1
    @gnasher729 Since when use of a cluster bomb against regular soldiers is a war crime? Neither USA, Russia nor Ukraine is a party of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
    – abukaj
    Oct 13, 2022 at 16:06

2 Answers 2


Civilians taking active part in hostilities are legitimate targets

This is enshrined in Rule 6 of customary International Humanitarian Law.

Rule 6. Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

  • 2
    In other words you're saying that a Russian soldier who shoots (and kills) Ukrainian civilians has committed a war crime, but not if the civilians stood their grounds and were actively defending their residences instead of fleeing. Can you clarify?
    – Sam7919
    Mar 1, 2022 at 13:18
  • 1
    Attacking a civilian's home just to cause damages wouldn't count as "hostilities". That residence isn't a legitimate target. So the civilian wouldn't take part in hostilities.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 1, 2022 at 14:06
  • @Sam I would think the sentence is sufficiently clear
    – Dale M
    Mar 1, 2022 at 20:42
  • 3
    @DaleM I would disagree. The sentence leaves a scenario open which seems counter-intuitive and should be clarified. That scenario is the following: "A soldier instigates hostilities. A civilian acts in self-defense, thus taking part in hostilities (in at least one sense of the word). During their act of self-defense, it would thus not be a war crime to attack the civilian, as they are in that moment, taking part in hostilities". The soldier that instigated would probably have comitted a war crime due to the instigation, but what about attacks by any soldier after the self-defence has begun?
    – user110391
    Mar 2, 2022 at 0:21
  • 3
    Self-defense is not hostilities
    – Dale M
    Mar 2, 2022 at 0:26

Not exactly.

Civilians fighting in accordance with the laws of war (wearing distinctive insigniga, bearing arms openly, etc.) would become combatants. The rule was written exactly for a situation like this, the population of an invaded country rallying to support their armed forces. As I understand it, a blue-and-yellow cloth on the arm should be enough distinction.

That makes shooting them not a war crime, under the same circumstances which apply to enemy soldiers. In other circumstances, shooting them would be a war crime. Russian soldiers would still be responsible for any war crimes they commit.

  • Does it mean that shooting a civilian fighting while not wearing insignia, concealing weapon etc. is a war crime?
    – abukaj
    Oct 13, 2022 at 16:15
  • @abukaj, it would be a war crime to attack civilians intentionally. When it is either an accident/misidentification or collateral damage from an attack on a military target, it becomes a question of proportionality and the attempt of distinction.
    – o.m.
    Oct 14, 2022 at 4:28
  • Even if the mentioned civilian attacks soldiers? I mean a situation when someone not wearing any insignia draws his concealed weapon and starts shooting members of occupying forces.
    – abukaj
    Oct 14, 2022 at 10:18
  • @abukaj, then the civilian would be violating the laws of war. To become a combatant, he must carry weapons openly and wear distinctive insignia.
    – o.m.
    Oct 14, 2022 at 13:24
  • 1
    @abukaj, your "them" depends on which part of my answer you refer to. Shooting civilians who spontaneously form a militia is not a war crime under the same rules when shooting soldiers is not a war crime. Shooting civilians while they are fighting with concealed weapons is not a war crime, but when they are no longer fighting they should get a trial rather than being shot.
    – o.m.
    Oct 14, 2022 at 15:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .