Martial Law – What it is, definition and concept

Martial law is an exceptional regime through which power is transferred to military institutions, in order to counteract extreme scenarios such as wars or rebellions. In this scenario, the rights of citizens are extremely undermined.

Through the declaration of martial law, a State seeks to solve an extreme crisis situation, such as a war, a rebellion or situations that seriously violate public order. It is a regime of exceptionality, that is, its use is totally restricted to the previously mentioned situations.

It is considered, of all exceptional regimes, as the most extreme, radical and undesirable. That is why many countries have eliminated it from their legislation. But they do retain other figures such as the state of alarm, emergency and siege. Somewhat lighter and with greater guarantees. In which the institutions have to report on their causes, development and consequences.

Origin of martial law

Martial law, in its origins, we see in the laws of many countries.

We see one of its oldest appearances in the French Revolution. To end the serious disturbances that occurred with the revolution, the Assembly passed martial law in 1789, giving police forces extraordinary powers to quell these rebellions.

It was also approved in laws of countries such as the United States, Latin America and many other territories. Although currently it has been replaced by other figures such as the state of siege, whose guarantees are somewhat greater. Although it is an ancient figure, it should be noted that it belongs to the Contemporary Age and to the emergence of modern States.

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Characteristics of martial law

Martial law supposes the almost total suspension of the rights of citizens. Through its declaration, the civil institutions become in the hands of the military. Some of its characteristics are the following:

  • It is a state of exception.
  • It is declared by the executive branch.
  • It is used for extreme emergency situations: war, riots or catastrophes.
  • The military and police forces take control of the country.
  • Rights such as freedom of movement are totally suppressed or limited.
  • The ordinary courts are suspended and replaced by the military courts.
  • It is in disuse and is not endorsed by international bodies and organizations.

Situations in which martial law has been passed

Martial law has been passed in some cases. Some of the examples we have are the following:

  • France (1789): During the disturbances caused by the French Revolution, the Assembly considered it pertinent to establish martial law and quell all acts that affected public order.
  • Hawaii (1941): After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the governor of Hawaii declared martial law, a fact that hardly had any disapproval against it. This happened in the context of the Second World War. It was the first time that the United States had received an attack on its territory and led to its entry into European territory.
  • Burma (2021): Following the coup in Burma in early 2021, numerous protests took place in numerous cities. Given this, the military junta declared martial law to quell these revolts. Measures such as the curfew, public events and meetings of more than five people entering into force.
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