What Is Martial Law and Under What Circumstances Is It Imposed?

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Feb. 24 2022, Published 11:38 a.m. ET

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky imposed martial law in the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine. What is martial law and under what circumstances can it be imposed in a country?

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The tensions between Russia and Ukraine have continued to get worse. Russia has launched several missile attacks across Ukraine. There has been a loss of life on both sides as Ukraine tries to deter Russian forces.

What is martial law?

Under martial law, the usual civil functions are taken over by the armed forces of a country. Also, civil liberties are greatly curtailed. Simply put, the military of a country takes charge of the country and takes over functions like law enforcement and often the powers of the judiciary are also curtailed.

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In some countries, the executive has the power to impose martial laws. However, in some others, it has to go through a legislative process. Also, depending on a country’s laws, the imposition of martial law could be subject to judicial scrutiny.

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Why is martial law imposed?

In usual circumstances, the civil laws in a democracy are good enough to handle the law-and-order problems. However, there are times the civil administration can't handle the situation. Mostly, these are instances when there are external threats to a country, like war.

At times, martial law can even be imposed in an internal security threat. Martial law could either be localized and only imposed in the disturbed area, or it could be applied across the country.

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Why did Ukraine impose martial law?

Ukraine had to impose martial law after the Russian invasion. President Zelensky advised Ukrainians to stay home and not panic. Some of the separatists in Ukraine have been supporting the Russian aggression. These groups have enjoyed the backing of Russia in the past. By imposing martial law, Ukraine might be able to maintain law and order better than the civil administration.

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Is there martial law in the U.S.?

There isn't a provision for martial law in the U.S. constitution per se. However, both the president and Congress can declare it if necessary. Martial law can also be declared by the state administration but according to Brennan Center for Justice, “their actions under the declaration must abide by the U.S. Constitution and are subject to review in federal court.”

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However, the definition of martial law in the U.S. is ambiguous. According to Joseph Nunn, an expert with the Brennan Center for Justice, there have been at least 68 instances of martial law in the U.S. which were declared by either federal or state officials.

Can martial laws be misused?

While Ukraine’s imposition of martial law is justified, there are several instances where such laws have been used to stifle opposition and free speech. For instance, martial law has been imposed in Pakistan several times and the country has spent decades under military rule.

Myanmar has also imposed martial law to suppress democratic voices in the country. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also threatened to impose martial law in his war on drugs but eventually backed down amid criticism.

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