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Safety at What Cost?: The Benefits of Martial Law and Why We Fail to Reap Them

Amidst the panic of the current pandemic, one topic has surprisingly entered the conversation and invoked a new fear worldwide: martial law. In early April 2020, it was questioned if world leaders would establish martial law to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was revisited again in June 2020 when Black Lives Matter protests turned violent. Martial law is a legal concept that, while widely feared, is yet unknown and has unclear legal parameters, consistently leading to abuse of power in countries.

Martial law is defined as the complete control over all aspects of civilian life by national military forces. It can be implemented during war, a state of emergency, natural disaster, or at times of unrest. During its implementation, all constitutional rights, including habeas corpus, are suspended. All civilian courts are disbanded and replaced by military courts, and mandatory checkpoints and curfews can be established within the region of control. Soldiers may search any suspicious person, confiscate belongings, and even evict individuals from their homes without a warrant. There is no limitation on the duration of martial law in any country because its use is determined by necessity, which is also the only prerequisite needed to implement it.

In times of chaos and emergencies, martial law offers a way for the government to take control of the situation and restore stability. While it may seem extreme, martial law re-establishes order and can allow response teams to better help those who most need aid. In the current pandemic, martial law could ensure people follow regulations by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This could minimise the spread of the disease and increase hospital productivity to better treat infected individuals. Martial law also offers an alternative way to regain control following the Black Lives Matter riots without worsening the already problematic relationship between local police officers and black citizens. Because martial law is extreme, it is only beneficial in emergency situations where it is truly needed to protect the wellbeing of citizens when local authorities cannot do so.

Martial law has been used sporadically throughout modern American history and has been declared by governors, the federal government, and the President across time. It was used to integrate schools in Little Rock in 1954 and to quell riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the Rodney King verdict in 1992, which was not dissimilar to today’s BLM protests. It has also been used throughout modern history in Ukraine, Egypt, Poland, and Thailand following both internal and external threats.

Technically, the ability to impose martial law in the US remains with Congress through thePosse Comitatus Act which prohibits federal troops from arresting or detaining people, but allows them to enhance civilian authorities; for example, when cleaning debris and looking for survivors in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The Insurrection Act, however, allows the President to override Congress and deploy federal troops militarily either by request or without state consent if there is unlawful obstruction or civil unrest. These two American laws juxtapose each other and give uncertain information about who can impose martial law and when it is valid. Unfortunately, legislation about martial law is just as unclear in other countries as well.

While martial law can be beneficial in true emergencies, it has a history of allowing political leaders to abuse power. For example, in the Philippines an infamous government-orchestrated scheme sentenced the country to almost nine years of military rule. President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972 which remained in place until January 1981. During that time, he possessed absolute power which he used to quell political opposition and strengthen his control over the country. Despite constitutional reforms in 1987, there are fears that the Philippines may be headed towards another abuse of power through martial law by President Duertes.

All the benefits of martial law are currently outweighed by the lack of clear grounds on which it can be enacted and who can mandate it. Governments across the world must work to establish more concrete rules regarding martial law to eliminate the possibility of exploitation by state officials at any level in times of crisis. Courts must establish clear precedents for martial law to be implemented to avoid abuse of power and prolong civilian unrest. It is essential to set clear prerequisites in all countries for martial law to be legally justified, particularly in a state of emergency like the global COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen’s rights must be protected even in a state of emergency because without clear parameters, the government at any level can eviscerate basic human rights through martial law.


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