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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Justice as identity: The role of Grandmothers of Plaza De Mayo in Argentina’s path to democracy

By Soumya S

The mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo enter to the former Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics detention center.

The fight for justice in the wake of the 1976 coup in Argentina has continued for several years, overcoming challenges that threatened to override transitional justice mechanisms completely. The faces at the forefront of the struggle have always been that of the survivors, who go up to three generations of Argentinians.[i] Among them, the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza De Mayo’ (Abuelas De Plaza De Mayo), contributed significantly to the transitional justice mechanism.

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina’s military-led dictatorship abducted, tortured, and killed thousands of political opponents. The regime’s treatment of children was the most inhumane: 500 babies and children disappeared alongside their parents or were being born in clandestine detention centres only to be handed to political sympathisers and their families.[ii] In the Argentine case, restoring the identity of the children of the disappeared is at the crux of the transitional justice process.[iii]

The Grandmothers of Plaza De Mayo are a human rights organisation functioning in Argentina born out of the fear and anguish the women held about their disappeared loved ones. The Grandmothers are the most relevant example of a non-violent, progressive force that worked towards restoring democracy in Argentina.[iv] The Grandmothers came together in search of their lost grandchildren in December 1977, a few months after Azucena de Villaflor founded the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. The demand of the Grandmothers was quite simple, to return the disappeared children to their families.

The environment in Argentina after the dictatorship was promising at first; several key human rights violators were tried and convicted in landmark trials. However, in the following years, several of the convicts were released by way of amnesty laws. Police brutality and corruption continued unabated, implying that even after the horrors of the coup, all were not equal under the eyes of the law. The work of the Grandmothers denounced this “culture of impunity” brewing in Argentina that made injustice and inequality the norm. They worked toward preventing the erasure of Argentina’s difficult history, emphasising “the right to know, the right to justice and the right to reparations”.[v]

The Grandmothers adopted several methods to locate their missing grandchildren. They learned to file writs of habeas corpus, visited juvenile courts for records of adoptions, and even reached out to the Pope for aiding their search. At a more ground level, they distributed posters and placed ads in newspapers with the photographs and information of the children.[vi] But merely locating the children was not enough; the Grandmothers had to prove that these children were biologically related to them. It was easy to prove parent-child links through blood testing, but when parents were either missing or killed, the Grandmothers had to look for another way. With the help of experts from across the world and advances in genetic testing, DNA analysis for matching a person with their biological grandparents was introduced in Argentina in 1984. The National Bank of Genetic Data, established in 1987, now stores hundreds of family profiles, and persons can get themselves tested for possible matches and discover their biological grandparents.

The Grandmothers’ work was partly responsible for the conceptualisation of a new human right[vii], a right to identity that includes one’s nationality, name, and family ties. This right was recognised by the UN Convention on Child Rights, 1989, that necessitate State Parties respect the “right of the child to preserve his/her own identity” and “provide assistance and protection in re-establishing their identity”.[viii] The Argentine delegation in the Working Group of UN Commission on Human Rights originally proposed this right, informed by the painful experiences in Argentina, so that in the future affected children and families would have access to legal mechanisms to re-establish their blood-ties.[ix]

The Grandmothers success can be attributed to their perseverance in collecting information and evidence, genetic testing, public campaigns, and international cooperation. The Grandmothers operated outside traditional structures and introduced a new form of political participation grounded in love and motherhood.[x] Within Argentina’s fragmented transitional justice process, the autonomous and independent approach of the Grandmothers combined with international and local networks of survivor's organisations, human rights organisations, and civil society ensured that the fight for justice for Argentina’s missing children would continue undeterred.

Thirty years into the movement, the Grandmothers have located 120 children.[xi]They have become the foundation of several other human rights organisations in Argentina today such as Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia Contra el Olvidoy el Silencio (HIJOS) (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence) and Herman@s de Desaparecidos por la Verdad y la Justicia (Herman@s) (Brothers and Sisters of the Disappeared for Truth and Justice) who demandjustice for injustices committed in Argentina in the past and in the present.[xii] The Grandmothers of Plaza De Mayo are a testament to how survivors and women-led organisations can spearhead transitional justice by recovering one identity at a time.

References: [i] Rita Arditti, The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Struggle against Impunity in Argentina (2002) [ii] Diego Zysman Quirós, Punishment, Democracy and Transitional Justice in Argentina (1983‐2015) (2017) [iii] Beate Goldschmidt-Gjerløw, Merel Remkes, Frontstage and Backstage in Argentina’s Transitional Justice Drama: The Niet@s’ Reconstruction of Identity on Social Media (2019) [iv] Note 1. [v] Note 1. [vi] Rita Arditti,” Recovering Identity” The work of the Grandmothers of plaza de mayo Women’s Studies int. Forum, Vol. 15, No. 4, 1992 [vii]Clyde Haberman, Children of Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’ Reclaim Past, With Help (2015) [viii] United Nations, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 8, [ix] Jaime Sergio Cerda, The Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child: New Rights, Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 12, No. 1 (Feb., 1990) [x] Note 1. [xi] History of Abuelas De Plaza De Mayo [xii] Ana Laura Pauchulo, Re-telling the Story of Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, Lessons on Constructing Democracy and Reconstructing Memory, Canadian Woman Studies Vol 27, No1 (2009).

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