Define: Absolute Martial Law

Absolute Martial Law
Absolute Martial Law
Quick Summary of Absolute Martial Law

During times of war or when the civil government is deemed ineffective, the military may take control of the government, which is known as absolute martial law. The military will create and enforce laws until the civil government can resume control. This type of martial law is typically implemented in response to significant issues such as invasions, riots, or economic crises. In contrast, qualified martial law involves the military taking control of only certain aspects of the government. Military law, on the other hand, refers to the army creating and enforcing laws in foreign countries that they have occupied.

What is the dictionary definition of Absolute Martial Law?
Dictionary Definition of Absolute Martial Law

Absolute martial law involves military agencies taking over all government functions, replacing civil authority completely. It is typically implemented during times of war, a national emergency, or when civil government is perceived to have failed. The military assumes complete authority over the country, and civil agencies are no longer in charge. This measure is taken to maintain control during times of crisis when civil authorities are unable to handle the situation. The military may take over some or all government functions, depending on the extent of the perceived threat, to ensure military security, public safety, or maintain social order. However, this may result in the suspension of civil liberties, and the military has the power to enforce its will on the population.

Full Definition Of Absolute Martial Law

Martial law represents a significant shift in the governance of a country, involving the suspension of normal civil law and the imposition of military control over civilian functions. While martial law can vary in its implementation and scope, this overview focuses on absolute martial law, a form where military authority is exercised to its fullest extent. This overview will examine the legal foundations, historical context, international perspectives, and the implications of imposing absolute martial law.

Legal Foundations of Martial Law

Definition and Scope

Martial law, in essence, is the imposition of military authority over a specific region or the entire nation, often in response to emergencies such as war, rebellion, or natural disasters. Absolute martial law entails the complete suspension of ordinary laws and civil rights, with the military assuming control of all administrative, judicial, and legislative functions.

Legal Basis in British Jurisprudence

In British legal tradition, martial law has a contentious history, largely due to its potential for abuse and the challenge it poses to civil liberties. Historically, the Crown’s prerogative powers allowed for martial law under extreme circumstances. However, this practice has evolved with the development of constitutional law and human rights norms.

The basis for imposing martial law in the UK today would be found in statutory provisions and the residual royal prerogative. Key legal documents such as the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Human Rights Act 1998 provide frameworks that restrict arbitrary use of power. Additionally, any imposition of martial law would need to align with the principles established in common law and precedents set by landmark cases such as Ex parte Milligan (1866), which asserted that military tribunals cannot supersede civil courts where the latter are operational.

Historical Context

British Examples

While the UK has rarely invoked martial law domestically, notable instances include its use in Ireland during the early 20th century and in colonial contexts. The imposition of martial law in Ireland during the War of Independence (1919–1921) and its controversial application in colonial territories such as India and Kenya underscore its historical significance and the legal debates it sparked.

International Instances

Globally, absolute martial law has been declared in various nations, often with profound impacts on governance and human rights. Examples include:

  • The Philippines (1972–1981): President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, citing threats of communist insurgency. This period saw the suspension of civil rights, dissolution of Congress, and widespread human rights abuses.
  • Thailand (2014): The military coup led to the imposition of martial law, which remained in place until the junta established a semblance of civilian rule.
  • Egypt (2013): Following the ousting of President Morsi, the military declared martial law, leading to severe restrictions on civil liberties and political dissent.

These cases illustrate how absolute martial law can fundamentally alter the political and social landscape of a nation.

Legal Framework and Procedures

Declaration of Martial Law

The declaration of martial law typically involves the head of state or government issuing a formal proclamation. This proclamation should outline the reasons for imposing martial law, its scope, and duration. In democratic societies, such declarations are often subject to legislative oversight and judicial review to prevent abuse of power.

Administration under Martial Law

Under absolute martial law, the military assumes control over all aspects of governance. This includes:

  • Law Enforcement: Military personnel replace civilian police forces, enforcing laws and maintaining public order.
  • Judiciary: Military tribunals adjudicate criminal cases, often without the procedural safeguards of civilian courts.
  • Legislative Functions: The military can issue decrees that have the force of law, bypassing the usual legislative process.

Impact on Civil Liberties

Absolute martial law often leads to the suspension of fundamental rights, including:

  • Habeas Corpus: The right to challenge unlawful detention is typically suspended, allowing for arbitrary arrests.
  • Freedom of Speech and Assembly: Censorship and restrictions on public gatherings are common, aiming to suppress dissent.
  • Right to Privacy: Increased surveillance and warrantless searches are implemented to control the population.

Duration and Termination

Martial law is intended to be a temporary measure, imposed only for as long as necessary to restore order. The duration should be explicitly stated in the declaration, with regular reviews to assess the need for its continuation. Termination typically involves a formal proclamation by the head of state or government, often following the restoration of civil order and stability.

International Legal Perspectives

International Human Rights Law

The imposition of martial law must comply with international human rights obligations. Treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allow for derogation of certain rights during emergencies but stipulate that such measures must be:

  • Proportionate: Restrictions on rights should be necessary and proportionate to the threat.
  • Non-Discriminatory: Measures should not discriminate on grounds such as race, sex, or religion.
  • Temporary: Martial law should be lifted as soon as the emergency situation is under control.

Humanitarian Law

In situations of armed conflict, the laws of war (International Humanitarian Law) apply alongside martial law. Key principles include:

  • Distinction: Differentiating between combatants and civilians.
  • Proportionality: Avoiding excessive use of force.
  • Necessity: Ensuring military actions are necessary for achieving legitimate objectives.

Violations of these principles can lead to accountability under international criminal law.

Implications and Challenges

Governance and Rule of Law

The imposition of absolute martial law represents a severe challenge to the rule of law. It centralises power in the military, often at the expense of democratic institutions and processes. This centralisation can lead to:

  • Erosion of Civil Liberties: Long-term impacts on rights and freedoms.
  • Judicial Implications: Undermining the independence and authority of the judiciary.
  • Legislative Impact: Bypassing democratic legislative processes.

Human Rights Concerns

Absolute martial law often results in widespread human rights violations, including:

  • Arbitrary Detention: Detaining individuals without due process.
  • Torture and Inhumane Treatment: Increased risk of abuse by military personnel.
  • Suppression of Dissent: Silencing opposition and curbing freedom of expression.

Economic and Social Impact

Martial law can have profound economic and social consequences, including:

  • Economic Disruption: Impact on businesses, trade, and investment due to instability and uncertainty.
  • Social Tensions: Increased tensions and divisions within society, particularly if martial law is perceived as targeting specific groups.

International Response

The international community’s response to the imposition of martial law can vary, ranging from diplomatic pressure and sanctions to intervention. Key factors influencing the response include:

  • Human Rights Record: Evidence of human rights abuses can prompt international condemnation.
  • Geopolitical Interests: Strategic interests and alliances may shape the response of other states.
  • Humanitarian Concerns: International organisations may intervene to provide aid and protect civilians.

Case Studies

The Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos

The declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 is one of the most cited examples of absolute martial law in modern history. Marcos justified martial law on the grounds of communist and separatist threats. Key features of this period included:

  • Suspension of Civil Liberties: Widespread curtailment of freedom of speech, assembly, and press.
  • Military Rule: Military tribunals replaced civilian courts, leading to numerous human rights abuses.
  • Political Repression: Arrest and detention of political opponents, activists, and journalists.

The period of martial law lasted until 1981, leaving a legacy of human rights violations and economic turmoil that continued to affect the Philippines long after its termination.

Thailand’s Military Coup of 2014

Thailand’s imposition of martial law following the military coup in 2014 serves as another significant example. The military justified their actions by citing the need to restore order amidst political chaos. Key aspects included:

  • Censorship: Strict controls over media and suppression of political discourse.
  • Curfews and Restrictions: Imposition of curfews and restrictions on movement.
  • Judicial Overhaul: Military courts took over many judicial functions, particularly for cases involving political dissent.

Martial law in Thailand led to a prolonged period of military rule, with significant impacts on the country’s political landscape and human rights situation.

Egypt’s 2013 Military Intervention

The military intervention in Egypt in 2013, following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, led to the imposition of martial law. This period was marked by:

  • Mass Arrests: Detention of thousands of political activists, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other dissenters.
  • Crackdown on Protests: Violent suppression of protests, resulting in significant casualties.
  • Consolidation of Power: The military’s entrenchment in political power undermines democratic institutions.

The imposition of martial law in Egypt had severe implications for political freedoms and human rights, drawing international criticism and concern.


Absolute martial law represents one of the most extreme measures a state can take, involving the suspension of civil governance and the imposition of military authority. While it can be justified in situations of extreme emergency, its implementation poses significant risks to civil liberties, democratic governance, and the rule of law. Historical and contemporary examples highlight the potential for abuse and the profound impact on societies subjected to such measures.

In the context of British jurisprudence and international legal standards, the imposition of absolute martial law must be carefully regulated, ensuring compliance with human rights obligations and maintaining the principles of proportionality, necessity, and temporariness. The challenges and implications associated with martial law underscore the need for robust legal safeguards and oversight to prevent its misuse and protect the rights and freedoms of individuals.

Absolute Martial Law FAQ'S

Absolute martial law refers to a state of emergency where the military takes complete control over a country, suspending civil liberties and granting the military authority to enforce law and order.

In absolute martial law, citizens’ rights are often severely restricted or suspended altogether. The military has the power to detain individuals without trial, restrict freedom of speech and assembly, and impose curfews.

Yes, the military can use force against civilians if deemed necessary for maintaining order and security. This may include the use of firearms, crowd control measures, and other means to enforce compliance.

Absolute martial law can be declared by a government if it believes that the situation warrants such extreme measures. However, it is typically only implemented in dire circumstances, such as during times of war, widespread civil unrest, or natural disasters.

The duration of absolute martial law can vary depending on the situation. It may be lifted once the government believes that order has been restored, or it can be extended if the circumstances persist.

Challenging absolute martial law in court can be difficult, as the military often has broad powers and immunity from legal action during this period. However, in some cases, individuals may be able to seek legal remedies through international courts or by appealing to higher authorities.

While the military has significant authority during absolute martial law, there may be limitations imposed by international law or constitutional provisions. However, these limitations can vary depending on the country and the specific circumstances.

Yes, the military can seize private property if it is deemed necessary for maintaining order or national security. However, compensation may be provided to the owners in some cases.

Yes, the military often has the power to control or censor the media during absolute martial law. This is done to control the flow of information and prevent the spread of misinformation or incitement to violence.

During absolute martial law, the government and legal system may be significantly altered or suspended. The military assumes control over governance, and civilian courts may be replaced by military tribunals.

Related Phrases
Martial Law

This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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