WTO meeting in Argentina: Rejected accreditations and deportations

The government rejected the accreditations of 65 people who planned to participate in the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires and sent the list to immigration officials as a security “alert.” Two people on the list were ultimately deported.

Petter Titland, a Norwegian activist belonging to ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens), planned to participate in the WTO Ministerial Conference being held in Buenos Aires on December 10-13. First, he received an email from the WTO saying that although his organization had been accredited, security authorities in the host country (Argentina) had rejected his accreditation “for unspecified reasons.” Some 65 people from civil society organizations throughout the world received the same email.

Titland decided to travel to Argentina anyway, to participate in other activities. He arrived on December 7, was retained for about 10 hours in the Ezeiza International Airport and was deported to Brazil in the early morning hours of December 8. Immigration officials accused him of being a “false tourist.” But many other people who came to Buenos Aires for the WTO Ministerial Conference and related events were allowed to enter the country as tourists. So what was the real reason for deporting Titland and British-Ecuadorean journalist Sally Burch, who was due to participate in the meeting as an expert on Internet regulation?

CELS intervened in this conflict prior to the deportations, filing legal and administrative petitions to find out what information was gathered by the Argentine government to blacklist these 65 people, how it was gathered (legally or illegally), and what criteria were used to prohibit their participation in the WTO meeting. We also filed a collective habeas corpus as soon as we learned that activists whose accreditations had been rejected were being retained at the Ezeiza airport (these people were eventually allowed to enter the country, but only after their embassies intervened).

When controversy first broke out over the disaccreditations, the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a press release explaining that the decision was made because these organizations or people “had made explicit calls via social media for violent demonstrations, expressing their intent to generate intimidation and chaos.” Clearly, the government had been gathering intelligence, very possibly based on people’s organizational affiliation or political opinion – which is expressly prohibited under Argentine law. That is why we requested that it specify the security restrictions established for participating in an event of this kind and explain the relationship between that evaluation and prohibiting or hindering people’s entry to the country.

At a court hearing on the habeas corpus, on Saturday, December 9, the government presented the list of 65 people whose accreditations were rejected, but insisted that it was not a list that impeded entry to Argentina and that it had no bearing on the deportations of Titland and Burch. It did acknowledge, however, that the Foreign Affairs Ministry sent this list to the National Migrations Office, as an “alert.” Both Titland and Burch’s names figured there.

In response to the habeas data petition and request for public information that we filed, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it could not provide details about what information was gathered or how. It forwarded the queries to the Security Ministry and the Federal Intelligence Agency.

Argentina’s intelligence system continues to operate with little transparency and questionable legality. The ban on collecting information on people based on their political or ideological views has been flouted again and again, in different cases that have come to light. The use of ideological and political criteria to gather intelligence is against the law and any action taken on the basis of this information or analysis is illegitimate.

The current administration used an emergency decree to reform the Migrations Law – held up as a model in the region for its human rights focus – and weaken guarantees for migrants and foreigners arriving in Argentina. These modifications left people rejected at the border without legal protection. Nor does the concept of a “false tourist” arise from the law; it was created by administrative resolution in 2014 as a discretional category. In these cases, this category was used as a pretext for implementing the alert created by the list.

After the deportations of Titland and Burch, and thanks to legal, diplomatic and media pressure, no one else was prohibited from entering the country. Also, the Argentine government announced it was re-accrediting some of the people on the list of 65, including Petter Titland. During the habeas corpus hearing, CELS’ lawyers obtained assurances from the National Migrations Office that none of the people on the list had been banned from entering the country, including Titland and Burch.

On the basis of these assurances, Titland decided to return to Argentina last Monday. Today he is participating in the WTO Ministerial Conference.

However, many other people and organizations remained without accreditation, including Chilean NGO Derechos Digitales, Argentine NGO Fundación Grupo Efecto Positivo and British NGO Global Justice Now. Some activists whose names were on the list told us they refrained from traveling to Argentina out of fear, and others had their visas rejected. Some worry that these marks will stay on their migration record. These actions by the Argentine government send a chilling message regarding the country’s commitment to civil society participation.