Threats to the right to protest in Argentina

Protests last week in Buenos Aires against pension and welfare reforms were met with a violent police response – reflecting a government rhetoric that seeks to criminalise protesters.

Gastón Chillier
22 December 2017
2017-12-18 reforma laboral represion- ph javier valente-28.jpg

Protests in Buenos Aires on 18 December 2017. Image: Javier Valente. Some rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Twice in the last ten days, Argentines took to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest against a legislative reform that will hurt millions of people who receive pension, disability and child welfare benefits – exacerbating inequality in an already difficult economic scenario. And twice in the last ten days, the security forces besieged Buenos Aires’ city centre in violent operations that had clear political and judicial backing. These actions seek to intimidate, repress and punish the exercise of the right to protest – a fundamental right in any democracy.

Argentina’s security forces indiscriminately fired rubber bullets at demonstrators, including at people’s faces and at short distances, and massively employed tear gas and pepper spray on both 14 and 18 December. On Monday alone, the disproportionate and irrational use of these crowd control weapons (also deceptively referred to as “less lethal” weapons) prompted around 100 injured people to seek care in the city’s hospitals, including at least 21 journalists. Four people lost an eye due to the rubber bullets.

The police and other security forces arbitrarily rounded up people as the protests were winding down 

Also, the police and other security forces arbitrarily rounded up people as the protests were winding down – including passersby and, again, journalists. At least 106 people were detained on those two tense days, and some of them have yet to be released. Many have been unjustifiably charged with the federal crime of “public intimidation” – for exercising their right to protest, or being in the vicinity of a protest. Also, in an alarming development, a federal judge ordered raids on the homes of a number of detainees last Saturday, with no legal grounds for doing so.

Despite the deluge of images documenting the security forces’ violent action, no government official has spoken out against the abuses committed or mentioned the possibility of carrying out internal investigations. On the contrary, they have expressed support for the operations and floated the idea of investigating protesters who confronted police with violence for “sedition”.

At the same time, the country’s political authorities have provided no information on how these operations were organised, what justification they had for ordering such large and diverse security force deployments, or what instructions the forces received. The actions taken indicate that the operations were aimed at repressing demonstrators and keeping them far from police barricades, while also limiting the work of journalists to prevent them from capturing images of arrests and injuries. All this to create a chilling effect – because there is no other explanation for staging an operation of this kind.

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Dozens of people were injured in the protests on 18 December 2017. Image: Javier Valente. Some rights reserved.

Although these latest crackdowns are troubling because of their scope and degree of violence, the practices described have become recurrent and form part of the state’s go-to response to social protest. Throughout 2017, numerous police operations in the city of Buenos Aires have included:

  • *Police roundups
  • *Disproportionate, irregular and illegal use of force
  • *Aggressions against press workers and those who record police action
  • *Lack of information about where people have been detained
  • *Lack of subsequent information on the operation regarding the orders given, the weapons used, the forces involved, the number of officers and the number of detained and injured persons

The scenario is compounded by government rhetoric that seeks to delegitimise the individuals and organisations involved in protests

The judicial response to the repression of protests also follows a repetitive logic: there is no judicial oversight of the security operations, judges validate the arguments that the security forces use to detain people, and demonstrators and passersby are charged with serious offenses – regardless of whether there is any proof they committed them.

The scenario is compounded by government rhetoric that seeks to delegitimise the individuals and organisations involved in protests. This combination of political messages against protest, violent police action and a criminalising judicial response constitutes the state’s very own “public intimidation” of demonstrators, aimed at discouraging street mobilisations.

Last Monday, a small group of demonstrators threw rocks at the police, causing injuries to officers. But that in no way justifies the state flouting its obligation to guarantee and protect the right to protest – no matter what the Argentine government says.

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