Rights groups, leftists blast protest bill
Government allies are trying to make good on President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s vow to issue “guidelines for urban co-existence” with a bill to regulate street protests that is likely to become the latest move that deepens divisions between Kirchnerism and left-wing groups that have long been part of its base of support.
Staunch Kirchnerite lawmakers Carlos Kunkel and Diana Conti have presented the draft bill that, among other things, establishes procedures to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate protests.
Sent to the Lower House of Congress on Tuesday but coming to light yesterday, the bill’s authors present the bill as not seeking to limit the right to protest by criminalizing it but rather as an effort to find ways for protests to continue as part of urban life.
The bill specifies that protests will be considered legitimate as long as they do not affect public services — particularly those relating to health, education and public safety — do not totally obstruct traffic of persons and vehicles in any given direction and that authorities are duly notified of the protest at least 48 hours in advance. Public protests that do not meet these criteria would thus be considered “illegitimate.”
The bill was met with strong opposition from several groups, including the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PTS), who criticized the fact that the draft appears to limit the right to public assembly and protest.
The bill specifies when a protest can be forcefully broken up by security forces. “An illegitimate protest that also affects the rights of third parties may be dispersed by security forces in order to guarantee those rights,” according to the procedures set out by the bill. These establish protocols for mediation and limits the use of force that the security forces can employ.
Lawmakers from Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri’s PRO party and centre-left Nuevo Encuentro did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.
Legitimacy and coverage
The draft presented by Victory Front (FpV) lawmakers Carlos Kunkel and Diana Conti, both of whom represent Buenos Aires province, along with five other members of their caucus has as its primary objective “to guarantee the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, to petition authorities, use of public space as well as the freedom of movement and physical integrity during public protests.”
Plainly put, the bill seeks to ensure that the rights of protesters and third parties are respected at any protest. To do so, the “legitimacy” of the protest is derived from whether or not the it is deemed to infringe upon the rights of third parties.
The state also commits to guaranteeing that the claims of “legitimate” protests receive adequate coverage in radio, television, print and digital media. Should the protests be “illegitimate” a state mediator will have the authority to “offer protesters adequate coverage of the protest in the above-mentioned media should he/she consider that they have been cooperative.”
A complicated framework
CELS Executive Director Gastón Chillier told the Herald he rejects that the bill “regulates, and therefore limits, the right to protest, which has been one of the historical motors of social transformation in this country” and criticized that authorities would need to be informed about the protests.
Chillier however highlighted that “we are not against the principle of debating the regulation of public protests as long as it guarantees and strengthens the right to protest, safeguards the rights of third parties and strengthens the regulation of the use of force.” As this draft, in CELS’ view, does not meet that criteria Chillier added that the organization hopes that it does not receive congressional approval.
CELS also took issue with the normative framework for the use of force, saying that the “principles of legality, incrementality, opportunity and last resort have historically been used by police” with negative consequences and the excessive use of force.
The draft bill specifies that authorities must have at least 48 hours notice of any protests and that security forces present at any protest will not be allowed to firearms and at any no point can they employ even non-lethal weapons directly against protesters. The use of force is mandated only after a period of mandatory mediation capped at two hours, after which point security forces are forced to intervene should an agreement not have been struck.
Coming on the heels of the April 10 national strike, which was magnified by roadblocks and pickets at key entry points into Buenos Aires City set-up by left-wing groups, the draft meets a request issued by the president at the March 1 opening session of Congress.
At that time, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner spoke about the need to find a solution to roadblocks, saying that regardless of the legitimacy of the claims, the fact that they indiscriminately obstruct traffic damaged the whole of society and the economy.
During the speech the president called upon Congress to help her administration to develop “guidelines for urban co-existence” which would guarantee the right to assembly and protest but which would also establish the conditions necessary for mass urban centres to continue operating.
Lower House PRO lawmaker Laura Alonso supported the comments energetically and nearly rose to applaud the president.
Renewal Front lawmakers also applauded the sentiment and in the meantime presented their own draft to regulate protests, which specified that they had to take place in designated locations far from urban centres.
In direct contrast, the PTS came out strongly against those comments and yesterday maintained that line, issuing a news release in which it announced their “total rejection of this reactionary bill which attempts to limit and circumvent the workers’ right to protest and the traditional methods of struggle.” The PTS also announced that the Workers’ Leftist Front (FIT), of which it is a member, will hold an event on May Day to repudiate this “anti-picket law.”