A court martial is a military equivalent to the civilian court system. Only members of the military or prisoners of war may be tried by court martial, and a series of specific rules governs the administration of courts martial. Many militaries around the world have instituted a courts martial system to handle military justice. These systems have also undergone substantial reforms since a general rise in the promotion of human rights and equality has occurred around the world.
People are tried by court martial for violations of military law, rather than civilian law, although military law encompasses many civilian crimes, such as theft. Most militaries have a code of justice such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in the United States. Under this code, crimes and their appropriate punishments are clearly spelled out. Soldiers may be court martialed for things like abusing prisoners of war or violating military honor codes in addition to more mundane crimes like vandalism.
The concept of a court martial separates members of the military from civilians. This is part of general military culture, which enforces a clear division between the two. Since soldiers are representatives of their governments, it is important to ensure that they behave appropriately. The court martial process is also used as a learning process, with many countries encouraging soldiers to defend themselves with the assistance of a trained advocate, and other soldiers assisting in the investigation and trial proceedings.
Just like civilians, soldiers have a number of basic rights. These rights vary from nation to nation, but in general soldiers may gather evidence to support their position and call witnesses. They are also not obligated to incriminate themselves, and in some countries, soldiers who may be subject to court martial must be warned in advance by their superiors. The trial must also include a neutral panel of judges who will be able to fairly weigh the evidence, and soldiers may appeal the verdict if they find it unfair.
As in a civilian trial, a court martial is based on gathered evidence which is collected by specialists. The proceedings for a proper trial are carefully laid out in military documents which also include sentencing guidelines. Courts martial are an important part of maintaining military discipline, and they also help to boost civilian faith in the military. Seeing soldiers on trial for their crimes indicates that the military has a sense of accountability and honor, and this can reassure civilians who are concerned about the closed nature of the military.