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A blood bank for the Children of No-one

They listened to the dictator as he declared to the press that a disappeared person is not there, is not an entity, is neither alive nor dead, simply does not exist. When an enfeebled democracy arrived in Argentina on 10th December 1983, they understood that none of their disappeared husbands or wives, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, none of them, (none of us) were disappeared while the search continued and the struggle was not abandoned.

They were a group of mothers and grandmothers who understood, even in 1977, that the search for the truth about their disappeared ones did not end with those who were brutally and cruelly tortured and killed through the length and breadth of a Latin America then submerged in Operation Cóndor, the death plan. The truth also included the disappeared who were still alive, the men and women born or stolen in the concentration camps of the military dictatorship.

There was a systematic plan of kidnapping, torture and extermination of individuals during the last Argentinian civil, ecclesiastic and military coup, but there was also a complementary systematic plan to steal babies - who are now the living disappeared of the dictatorship, the disappeared who wander through our world and simply don't know. And perhaps will never know.

The birth of the National Bank of Genetic Data [Banco Nacional de Datos Genéticos (BNDG)] in Argentina was a historic event given that its aims, according to law 23.511 published on 10th July 1987, was to obtain and store genetic information that would facilitate the determination and clarification of conflicts concerning blood relationships. That is to say, a state entity was created whose object was to be an essential tool in guaranteeing the right to identity of all persons, including the living disappeared of the dictatorship.

The genetic evidence that the BNDG provides is the ideal way of proving a relationship of consanguinity between one person and a family group. The BNDG is the guardian of the genetic samples of the relatives who search for a living disappeared person. The call of blood of a relative, of the blood which flowed in the concentration camps and of the blood that runs in the veins of those who did not give up their hopes of finding their own or of those who died without surrender, is now in the guardianship of this institution.

The BNDG was born as a result of the struggle by those mothers and grandmothers who found in the world of genetics a chance of finding their loved ones. A possibility for the peoples of Latin America to be able to recognise and reconcile themselves with their historical and genuine identity.

Time brought the laws of impunity of the former Argentinian president Carlos Menem that consecrated as "Due Obedience" and "Full Stop" the transitory victory of the repressors and their accomplices. The lack of proper investigation by the State in response to the complaints of kidnapping of children during the dictatorship were set out in the files of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) and to this day have never been investigated.

The repeal of Menem's laws and the beginning of the trials of the repressors and their accomplices - collaborators from civil society and the church - marked a turning point in the history of the human rights movements in the country. The banner of the disappeared became part of the media and the party political agenda that ended with the destruction of many organizations and the division between the grandmothers and the mothers who initiated the resistance and the struggle at the height of the dictatorship.

While these events transformed the political reality of Argentina, the BNDG was the object of its own transformation in the National Congress. By means of Law 26,548 published on 27th November 2009, it went from being a universal guarantee of the right to genetic identity , to being a resource available only to persons born and/or registered prior to 10th December 1983. It was made an entity dependent on the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation. The law established that the right to genetic identity is limited in time and thus the principal beneficiaries of the reform became the private laboratories.

The disinformation of information

A person who believes himself or herself to be the son or daughter of a disappeared person can only apply to the BNDG through a judge or the National Commission for the Right to Identity [Comisión Nacional por el Derecho a la Identidad (Conadi)], an entity which is dependent upon the National Human Rights Secretariat. The genetic sample that is supplied is compared with the universe of samples retained by the BNDG, 247 family groups searching for a living disappeared person.

So here we have one of the biggest paradoxes: the organisations and the National Human Rights Secretariat have filed petitions in respect of 30,000 detained/disappeared individuals and more than 400 stolen grandchildren. But there are only 9,000 legal cases where the disappearance of persons during the dictatorship are being investigated (when there is a total of 30,000 victims). In other words, just one third. In addition, the BNDG only has custody of 247 family group samples whilst there is a continuing search for over 400 living disappeared persons.

The BNDG is not complete, and not just because the majority of the relatives of the disappeared wrongly believe that if they supply their blood to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team [Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF)] they are contributing to just one genetic search bank. There is also no active policy to investigate the secret births of children to mothers held in the concentration camps, and no database has been created in respect of the repressors who tortured by raping the disappeared-detained women. Nor has there been any effort to get all the victims' relatives to provide a sample to the BNDG given the possibility that the women were pregnant at the time they were kidnapped or as a result of rape.

The historical dilemma in respect of the samples arises from the fact that there are two gene banks which are distinct legally and in purpose. The EAAF, is a specialised, non-governmental organization with an impeccable professional history. Its work focuses on the identification of skeletal remains. It has made an important contribution on the subject of the detained-disappeared individuals from the period of the Argentinian military dictatorship and its professionals intervene wherever they find common graves and/or the remains of persons who were presumed to be victims of state terrorism. The EAAF retains the physical custody of the found human remains and carries out a genetic study to determine if they are, in fact, a disappeared person, by comparison with the genetic samples of the family members. In other words, the EAAF makes a contribution to the investigation of the disappeared who were exterminated in the concentration camps.

The BNDG is an organ of the State and since its formation it has been the custodian of the genetic samples of relatives who are searching for a disappeared person who may be alive. It allows for the identification of persons who are trying to trace their identity and that of their families.

These entities, of distinct legal character, although they contribute to the clarification of the crimes of the dictatorship, have not articulated a joint effort which would lend itself to the completion of the bank and/or the identification of the remains of unknown persons in the custody of the EAAF.

Since the law reform of 2009, the purpose of the BNDG is not only the identification of the disappeared who are alive but also that of skeletal remains. The question is whether the legislative strategy is designed to absorb the functions of the EAAF within the sphere of the BNDG. If this is the case, given their very different functions and distinct working techniques and technology, as well as the discrete field of study and carried out by professionals with different expertise, it must be decided whether the strategy is intended to optimize the investigations or simply to crystallise an accumulation of power and facilitate the manipulation of the results of investigations for political ends.

Both the EAAF and the BNDG are entities of proven excellence in their respective functions, giving rise to an international recognition not only of the organisations themselves but of the professionals connected with them. Therefore, the question is why has the State brought about a reform that implies the possibility that this or a future government might absorb the functions of the EAAF at the same time as carrying out the transfer of the BNDG to a dependence of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation.

This move is not merely legal but also physical as the BNDG is to be moved from its current premises at the Hospital Carlos G. Durand in the City of Buenos Aires, the place where it has operated since 4th July 1989 when decree 700/1989 was issued.

Uncertainties and suspicions about the transfer

The move of a dependence of the state does not usually generate too much conjecture. However, when one is talking about the BNDG - one is talking about the blood of more than 30,000 detained/disappeared persons from the military dictatorship. One is also talking about the disappeared who are still alive, of the hopes of finding out where they are and a place in the world where there is a space for truth. This space, for many people, is the BNDG.

During the month of November 2012 a doctor specialised in the human genome was walking through the halls of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation. He was talking about investments, of agreements with Spanish entities, of projects which would bring economic benefits to national industry and which could be executed in Argentina.

This doctor was anointed co-ordinator of the BNDG and his name is Hernán Javier Dopazo. The duties given him by the Ministry, concerning the physical relocation of the BNDG, have nothing to do with its public actions.

On internet sites, some family members of disappeared have issued an alert over the creation of a Human Genome Institute within the sphere of the BNDG, directed by Dr. Dopazo. This Institute would be in the process of developing investigation projects involving human genomics and bioinformatics in close partnership with the BNDG.

Expressly it is stated that "this new institute will take advantage of the experience and pioneering work of the BNDG founded by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to host a new National Bank of physical and digital DNA samples from the Argentinian people, facilitating projects investigating the genome for health purposes." (website ). The co-ordinators responsible for transferring the BNDG believed it appropriate to announce the creation of an institute outside the legal parameters established for the existence and operation of the BNDG. An institute which would "utilise" and "take advantage of" the pioneering work of the BNDG and of the expensive advanced technology equipment available for the identification of persons.

At the end of May this year, in a somewhat untimely manner, Dr Dopazo was removed from his duties as co-ordinator of the BNDG and Drs Víctor Penchaszadeh y Héctor Targovnik were named as his replacement. The former of these men had a role in the foundational stage of the BNDG and both co-ordinated its physical transfer, having been part of the Advisory Committee which implemented the regulations of Law 26.348 governing this entity.

Rights without effectiveness

In January 2013, the Executive Power of the Nation published the regulations implementing the law governing the BNDG by way of Decree 38/2013. Among the matters regulated by this law is the expansion of the computer archives of the BNDG to include the samples now in possession of the EAAF, both those from the remains that have been found and those from the genetic samples provided by family members to enable the identification of the disappeared.

This provision, so longed for by those who are searching for their identity and the identity of those disappeared who are still alive, produces both resistance and a profound debate for human rights organisations and for the Judiciary which has the legal guardianship over the remains of the disappeared who have been found. The expansion of this database will enable amplification and completion of the family group samples now in the possession of the BNDG and in that way will contribute to the investigation of the more than 4000 youths who were born during the dictatorship who do not know their origin and produced negative results when compared with the limited universe of samples which currently exists.

The Judiciary must be on top of events to be able to evaluate the right to identity of this group of individuals and to allow a historic reparation to family life for all those persons who are searching and hoping to be found. However, since the publication of these regulations, there has been no progress in the expansion of the genetic samples of the BNDG and the federal judges have not taken the bull by the horns.

By way of conclusion

The BNDG is being transformed as a result of (or with the excuse of) the repeal of the Law establishing it and the promulgation of Law 26.548. These changes, from a legal perspective, imply a violation of the right to identity of all persons, as this right is now limited in time, an arbitrary and unreasonable limit which principally benefits the private laboratories to which those who were born and/or were registered on a date later than 10th December 1983 must now resort.

The transfer of this entity, not only legally but also physically, to the aegis of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, has attracted attention in light of the public announcement of the official nominated as co-ordinator (from outside the organizational chart established in the relevant law and regulation) regaring the creation of a human genome institute within the framework of the BNDG.

The replacement of this co-ordinator with others does not change the necessity and the right to know the truth about the administration and management of the BNDG which the Ministry, and therefore, the State are seeking to establish. This right to know is not exclusive to those who have provided genetic samples to the various gene banks, nor even to the relatives who are searching for their disappeared ones.

It is a collective right, of the society as a whole; one must not forget that this bank is the result of a social struggle for Truth and Justice and its recognition lies therefrom. No political flag or policy can appropriate, transform or destroy these rights.

Documentary note: This article has been signed under the pseudonym, Children of No-one, chosen by a collective of Argentinian human rights activists who believe it is impossible to publish their names in the current environment of the "human rights policy" of the Republic of Argentina. Equipo Nizkor guarantees the anonymity and the publication of the document.

[Source: By Children of No-one, Bs As, 27Jun13. Translation to English by Equipo Nizkor]

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