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Difference between combatant and insurgent “Fighter” or “Terrorist”

References: European Journal of International Law (ejil.oxfordjournals.org)
Ruslan Gelayev, nicknamed 'Black Angel"

Ruslan Gelayev, Chechen commander turned to”terrorist” by the Russian federal forces, who also nicknamed him “the Black Angel”

The qualification of a  conflict as a whole makes the difference between “conflict” and “terrorism”.

The international human rights law provides that during an armed conflict, every individual is classified as either a combatant or a civilian.

A civilian has the right not to be targeted for attack and the right to receive protection from attack.

If the civilian joins the armed forces, he exchanges the rights of a civilian for the rights of a combatant. A combatant has the right to take part in hostilities. The combatant also loses any right not to be attacked.

However, if a combatant is captured or surrenders, he may not be prosecuted as a murderer for killing enemy combatants; instead, he becomes a prisoner of war, and can be held only until the end of active hostilities.

In order to apply international human rights law regarding combatants – the states in question (in this case the Russian federation) have to accept the notion of “armed conflict” in the region.

Since the second Russian-Chechen war when Russia regained control over Chechnya – it denied that it faced an internal armed conflict in Chechnya anymore, characterizing the events simply as terrorism and banditry and, consequently, it denied that international humanitarian law applied.

Russia refused to accept the “combatant” status anymore, and from then on it treated the hostile subjects as “insurgents” – which falls under penal code and they can be classified as criminals.

A combatant who kills a soldier is guilty of nothing; an insurgent who kills a soldier is guilty of murder. 

Under humanitarian law, the rules apply to all parties in a conflict – government forces and dissident armed groups alike.

Under human rights law (where the existence of a conflict is denied), the rules apply only to the government.


Therefore, by refusing the existence of armed conflict in the area and by treating the hostile subjects as “criminals and bandits”, Russia gave itself full legality over its own actions without need of justification.

Any opposition to Russia is classified as “terrorism”, “banditry” or “insurgency”, any talks to the opponent sides are refused – and according to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s declaration – they will all be “fully eliminated”.