Legislation proposed by Uruguay’s new government could be a setback for human rights

On 13th March 2020, Uruguay’s government issued a decree (93/020) declaring a state of national sanitary emergency due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Among other measures, the legislation suspended all public gatherings and announced mandatory quarantine for anyone confirmed positive for COVID-19 or showing symptoms and for those who had recently visited high-risk areas.

Peaceful Assembly and Expression

Legislative package concerns human rights advocates

On 23rd April 2020, newly elected president Luis Lacalle Pou and lawmakers from his Partido Nacional (National Party – PN) introduced a legislation package for urgent consideration by parliamentarians, known as Ley de Urgente Consideración (Urgent Consideration Law - LUC). This includes more than 500 articles covering health, education, housing and security measures, among other topics. Uruguay’s Constitution allows the president to propose urgent laws, which are approved automatically if not rejected or substituted after a debate of no more than 90 days in parliament.

Politicians from opposition parties and civil society have stressed that the urgency imposed on such a broad package of legislation curtails democratic debate. Representatives from Frente Amplio (Broad Front Party) stated that "it is an affectation of democratic guarantees to pretend to discuss more than 500 articles covering the most diverse topics in just 75 days". On 25th May 2020, Amnesty International published a statement urging lawmakers to ‘remove’ the urgent consideration from the proposal and to create commissions which allow for the project’s full debate.

Freedom of expression group Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública (Centre for Archives and Access to Public Information - CAinfo) warned that the approval of this law as presented "would be a clear setback for human rights in the country and a violation of international conventions Uruguay adhered to through its parliamentary ratification". On 8th May 2020, CAinfo presented an extensive report to the parliamentary commission in charge of analysing the bill, highlighting articles that have the potential to limit freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and access to information.

Critics say the LUC has the potential to limit labour rights and social protests. According to CAinfo’s report, some articles would enable employers to disband strikes which occupy places of work and allow security forces broad discretion in the use of force to prevent, intervene in and repress protests. In this regard, CAinfo said, "articles 11, 14, 45, 491, 492 and 493 are in question because they imply a violation of the State's obligation to guarantee peaceful assembly and, in addition to limiting its legitimate exercise, it violates universal standards and Inter-American human rights".

On the same lines, Uruguay’s Institución Nacional de Derechos Humanos y Defensoría del Pueblo (National Human Rights and Public Defence Institution – INDDHH) elaborated on the issue, underscoring that some of the LUC’s articles could restrict rights that are fundamental to civic participation. For example, the legislation would allow security forces to dissolve protests affecting circulation in public or private spaces, such as road blockages or pickets, and detain protesters. The INDDHH considered that the definitions given in such articles are too broad and ambiguous, giving ample discretion for security forces to decide on what would constitute an ‘illegitimate’ protest. This, said the institution, is not in accordance with the principles of necessity and proportionality required to justify such a limitation on civic rights. In addition, INDDHH expressed concern about legislation extending opportunities for the use of force by security agents.

Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, expressed concern about potential limitations to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression in the proposed legislation. In particular, he highlighted articles which affect digital rights, access to information and social protest. If approved, said Lanza, this law would give “police a very broad discretion to declare illegal demonstrations of the most diverse nature, in any space”. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged lawmakers to reject Article 11 of the LUC, which the CPJ said would criminalise behaviour that "belittles," "offends," "undermines," or "insults" a police officer, and impose jail terms of 3 to 18 months for those convicted.

On 21st May 2020, a representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also presented concerns before Uruguay’s legislature, saying that several articles might represent regression for human rights in the country.

Protest against the LUC

On 14th May 2020, opposition groups protested against the Urgent Consideration Law (LUC) in front of the Parliament despite social isolation recommendations in the context of COVID-19. Protesters argued that the LUC is regressive in terms of labour and other rights, and that the key issues covered by it require wider discussion than permitted under the urgent consideration proceedings.