Using the law as a means of social transformation
The Argentinian Constitution, revised in 1994, recognises economical, social and cultural rights (DESC). It provides citizens with a process to protect constitutional rights, permitting anyone to summon before the Court somebody who is responsible by action or omission for the violation of such rights. The Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ), through its community legal action plan, conducted in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, helps the most vulnerable people to have access to this mechanism in order to allow effective claim to their rights.
The objectives of the ACIJ are to promote DESC access to the most vulnerable people and to make sure that the legality of public policies is respected. In 2004, in collaboration with local associations, the ACIJ created the Community Centre of Legal Action (CALC). Located in Moreno, a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, the CALC offers free legal assistance to local citizens who decide to claim collectively their DESC. In effect, access to the law is difficult for this vulnerable population, even more so in Argentina, where the signature of a lawyer is necessary to bring legal action. However, lawyers apply expensive fees and don’t necessarily work on DESC. Furthermore, how can Moreno inhabitants be expected to reach courts located eighty kilometres from their home if they don’t even have access to basic public transport?
Community approach to claiming rights: The CALC systematised method
The CALC process is in line with a community approach to a DESC claim thus ensuring it is kept away from many lawyers’ organisations providing appeals without involving the population. On the contrary, the CALC team recognises the independent right of people who are themselves capable of suggesting a claim strategy to lawyers.
Therefore, inhabitants are invited to identify the legal conflict through translating in legal terms, those rights not satisfied by the State, and by establishing an analysis of the situation by determining the people involved, the resources and the set period of time. This is followed by the elaboration of an action strategy, followed by a claim against the State and private companies which implement public services, without necessarily bringing suit/initiating legal proceedings. As for CALC stakeholders, “making a conflict legal can only be a last resort. Other types of action have to be considered.”
Thus, by drafting a law project for the city council with the lawyers of CALC, the Moreno high school students have managed to achieve reduced fares for the use of public transport. Results are often reached through the combination of several types of actions. For example, in the case of a conflict regarding health rights, inhabitants from the Vergel area brought about the construction of a road by associating legal action and an appeal to protect constitutional rights together with road blocks and the presentation of dossiers before the local administration. The strategy can also consist in connecting the inhabitants to other groups already exiting in order to take advantage from their experience.
However, a collective approach to conflict is not going to be without certain difficulties. A proper perspective requires time and resources. Thus, in Vergel, six years passed between the beginning of the claims and the road construction. Moreover, only a few lawyers are engaged in this type of approach. They usually prefer using technical appeals without involving local population in their action. A third difficulty lies in the fact that Argentina is a federal country, within which the Constitution is sometimes contradictory to provincial constitutions and city councils’ own standards. Finally, the existence of appeal for the protection of constitutional rights, guaranteed by the Article 43 of the Constitution, has for a long time been unknown to both the population and law practitioners. It was only with the financial crisis in 2001 that Argentinean people really began to take advantage of this appeal.
If judicial improvements concerning DESC recognition and the ability to oppose are essential, they must accompany training programs for the local population in order to enable these people to use the law as an instrument for social changes.
The CALC organises trainings for the inhabitants to improve their ability to defend their rights, but also for lawyers and civil servants who are not used to this perspective of collective claim. This way, the CALC has developed systems through the production of a methodical guide entitled Proposal for a legal community action for the claim of collective rights, developed for trainers, community leaders, legal practitioners and social workers, in order to encourage them to promote “the right” approach in their community work.
By combining legal action together with collective action, and by offering training and participative work methods, the CALC work contributes to guarantee a real effectiveness of the DESC.
Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia , Avenida de Mayo 1161 Piso 5to. Of. 9 - C1085ABB Ciudad de Buenos Aires, Argentine / email@example.com
Centro de Apoyo Legal Comunitario Padre Varvello, Daniela Lovisolo, 4800 Localidad de Paso del Rey (1742), Municipio de Moreno, Provincia de Buenos Aires, Argentine
Translation : Camus Céline Alexandra
Proofreading : Conor Rafferty