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17 Jan 2024 | Commentary

Emergency Measures Trump Democracy and Human Rights in Argentina

In his first speech as President of Argentina on December 10, Javier Milei made clear he would immediately be implementing radical economic and political changes. He indicated that Argentines should brace themselves since this “shock therapy” was a necessary evil that needed to be endured until the economy improved. Milei is resorting to a “mega decree” to advance his agenda that will undermine democracy and human rights.

On December 20, President Milei presented a Decree of Necessity and Urgency 70/2023 (Decreto de Necesidad y Urgencia or DNU) containing 366 articles that would dismantle or change 73 laws and circumvent Congress in the process. The use of the DNU to advance a president’s economic and policy agenda is historically unprecedented.

As President Milei does not hold a majority in Congress, this move is seen as circumventing the democratic process, including negotiations and debate with the opposition. The use of the DNU solidifies fears that the new government is willing to undermine democracy and ignore debates to advance its agenda.

If enacted, the DNU will radically impact the lives of Argentines. According to the Center for the Political Economy of Argentina (Centro de Economía Política Argentina, CEPA), the mega-decree is regressive in terms of labor rights. It advances foreign ownership, attacks trade unions, and deregulates numerous sectors including energy, health, and real estate. Rather than helping consumers, it will increase profit margins for 20 businesses operating as oligarchies.

The Center for Legal and Social Studies (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, CELS) has filed a legal suit before a federal court against Milei’s DNU. They argue that it ignores the basic democratic principle of separation of powers, and suppresses and restricts rights and individual and collective guarantees for economically vulnerable sectors of society. As the decree would mean a regression of several human rights, CELS has affirmed that it goes against international human rights law and the Argentine constitution. CELS states that a DNU is meant to be used only in exceptional circumstances when responding to an urgent situation that is not compatible with the Congressional timetable.

Apart from the DNU, President Milei immediately devalued the Argentine peso and removed price controls, resulting in prices skyrocketing, and laid off 5,000 government employees. Other plans announced included cutting the fuel and transportation subsidies that enable many Argentines to work, decreasing transfer payments to the provincial governments from the central government, and halting new infrastructure projects.

Immediately after the announced changes, Argentines took to the streets to protest the austerity measures initiating the cacerolazos (the Argentine practice of beating on pots and pans as a sign of protest). The government responded with a new protocol aimed at regulating protests. The protocol gives federal forces the authority to clear persons blocking streets without a judicial order. The police can identify protestors utilizing video or other digital means who are obstructing the public. While Milei says he’ll allow protests, he’s also threatened to cut off public aid payments to anyone who blocks roads. Other restrictions include banning persons from covering their faces and taking sticks to protests.

On December 19, 2023 more than 1,700 organizations and 1,500 individuals petitioned the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to act against the protocol. The signers argue that the protocol is unconstitutional and “incompatible with the rights to free assembly and association, freedom of expression and social protest.”

Argentina’s General Confederation of Labor (CGT) is calling for a strike starting on January 24. Between a potential strike, protests, and legal challenges, it remains to be seen how President Milei will deal with mounting pressure.