The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states that

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely ...

In the comments to an answer to another question, there were questions as to the definition there. When is a soldier taking "active part" in the hostilities?

Are they considered to take an active part when they are sleeping? Awake but eating dinner? Does it matter if they are armed at the time, or merely "in uniform"? Are there (other) times when a uniformed member of the military would not be considered "taking active part" in the hostilities? Or are they considered to be taking an active part simply by being a uniformed member of a belligerent party?

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    The document title shows it refers to the treatment of Civilian Persons, and this clause shows that some members of the armed forces should be treated as if they are civilians. "Or other causes" doesn't include soldiers on a rest break. It is not about how soldiers in general should be treated, but about soldiers who have effectively ceased to be soldiers. Jan 11, 2023 at 18:22
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    @WeatherVane That's the question, though. At what point have soldiers effectively ceased to be soldiers? The main phrasing "taking no active part in the hostilities" could potentially be read to include sleeping soldiers (similarly to a sick person, a sleeping person isn't doing any active soldiering while sleeping). Is that an accurate reading? How does the international community actually interpret this directive? (Note I'd personally assume that sleeping soldiers are indeed not included, but as I don't know for certain, I feel it's a valid question to ask.)
    – R.M.
    Jan 11, 2023 at 19:35
  • No: they are still soldiers, not (effectively) civilians for the purposes of this document. It is about soldiers who should no longer be considered as such, not those alternating between ssoldier and not-soldier. Jan 11, 2023 at 19:37
  • @WeatherVane You seem confident in that assessment, so I encourage you to write it up as a full answer.
    – R.M.
    Jan 11, 2023 at 21:09
  • The question is trivial. It doesn't require a definition of soldier, but defines what a civilian is. Jan 11, 2023 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


Members of the armed forces who are not hors de combat are taking an “active part”

Hors de combat is not there for padding - its a defined term of the Convention:

A person is hors de combat if:

(a) he is in the power of an adverse Party;

(b) he clearly expresses an intention to surrender; or

(c) he has been rendered unconscious or is otherwise incapacitated by wounds or sickness, and therefore is incapable of defending himself;

provided that in any of these cases he abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape.

A person is not hors de combat simply because they are:

  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Unarmed
  • Out of uniform
  • Defecating
  • Fornicating
  • Drunk
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    @OrangeDog "he has been rendered unconscious...by wounds or sickness" Jan 11, 2023 at 23:26
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    @OrangeDog even if you don't accept that "by wounds or sickness" applies to "has been rendered unconscious," a sleeping person has not been rendered unconscious. To be rendered unconscious is to be made unconscious by something external. Falling asleep is not external.
    – phoog
    Jan 12, 2023 at 0:08
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    @Mary No, unconscious is the state of being not awake and aware of and responding to one's environment - normal sleep fulfils that definition.
    – Dale M
    Jan 12, 2023 at 1:29
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    @Mary keep in mind that the legal definition of unconsciousness isn't necessarily the same as the medical or physiological definition -- and even the legal definition may be different in different contexts. The word "unconscious" might include "asleep" for some laws but not for others.
    – phoog
    Jan 12, 2023 at 2:08
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    @OrangeDog: I'm not sure there is any "official" definition of "unconscious" WRT the Geneva convention - however I'd say in this case the context makes this clear. The Convention does not just say "unconscious", it says "rendered unconscious [...] by wounds or sickness" - this clearly excludes normal, healthy sleep.
    – sleske
    Jan 12, 2023 at 9:22

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