Martial law is a term used to describe a temporary military takeover of government within a specific area. This is usually undertaken to protect public safety and order when civil authorities are no longer able to retain control. However, martial law has sometimes been criticized by people who believe that it can also be used to suppress dissent and political activities among the civilian population, and sometimes the imposition of military control is controversial.
Many nations have measures in their legal codes which allow martial law to be declared. The classic reason to declare it is because of a natural disaster which has overwhelmed civil authorities. The military can step in to provide security and governance until things stabilize. It may also be used at a time of war. More controversially, some nations have declared martial law after populist uprisings, with the military suppressing the uprising and restoring government control, and in some cases a military takeover of government has been total, with all civilian officials including the head of state being replaced with military officers.
In full martial law, the military serves as police, legislature, and courts. Civil rights are typically suspended, and people may be subject to the military code of justice and expected to adhere to military law. In other cases, the military takes over some tasks, and leaves others in the hands of civil authorities. For example, the civilian legislature may be left intact while soldiers provide policing because the civilian police force is not capable.
Martial law may be declared by a head of state, and in some cases by legislative bodies. Usually the term of military control must be clearly defined; instead of declaring it to be indefinite, time limits must be set. It may be necessary to declare a state of emergency before the military can be brought in, so that there is a clear justification for bringing in the military.
Declarations of martial law are rare. Because there are legitimate fears about the potential for abuse of power, civilian leaders are hesitant to bring in the military unless they feel that there is a genuine security risk which must be addressed. Civilians also usually like to retain control of key areas of government during periods of martial law, although they will work with military officials to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible. The imposition of military control may also be accompanied with civilian monitors who are tasked with ensuring that the military does not overstep its bounds.