Argentina’s rule-of-law approach to addressing a legacy of enforced disappearances


By Bojana Djokanovic

As many as 30,000 persons are believed to have disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War” (a term coined in the United States but considered insulting in Argentina) between 1976 and 1983. In these seven years, the Argentine military dictatorship carried out a systematic campaign of repression against citizens it labeled as dissidents or rebels. Men and women who opposed the government – or who were simply perceived as opposing the government – were taken to secret government detention centers and never heard from again. Furthermore, it is estimated that as many as 500 children born in prisons and camps were taken from their mothers at birth and illegally given up for adoption.

In the midst of political instability and severe economic difficulties, a military junta led by Jorge Videla seized power in 1976. The military, backed by conservative forces in the political and economic establishment and the Catholic Church, launched a systematic campaign against “subversive”, including trade unionists and progressive clergy. The dictatorship ended in 1983 after Argentina had been defeated in the short war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. In 1985, members of the junta were put on trial. The proceedings were closely monitored as the trial was seen as an example of how democratic governments in Latin America could address the legacy of authoritarian rule by upholding the rule of law. [1] Several leading figures from the dictatorship, including Videla, were given long prison sentences. Although Videla and others received presidential pardons in 1990, legal proceedings have continued. Videla died in prison in 2013.

The willingness of Argentina’s democratic authorities to address the issue of disappearances in the courts is significant, as it affirms the principle that social peace cannot be sustained without satisfying the demands of justice. NGOs had started searching for the missing even before the dictatorship ended. These NGOs mainly comprised female relatives – often mothers and grandmothers – of disappeared persons or illegally adopted children. One such organization is the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo[2] (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), founded in 1977 to search for children illegally adopted during the dictatorship. The grandmothers began to assemble at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, and their peaceful and eloquent presence there, dressed in white, soon brought them international attention.

The Association is headed by Estela Barnes de Carlotto, whose grandson was taken at birth from de Carlotto’s daughter, who had been imprisoned and eventually killed.  De Carlotto now believes that “Argentina is at the forefront in terms of reparations to victims and their families, in the construction of memory spaces, the search for justice and the end of impunity,” [3]

Similar claims are made by Luciano Hazan, a member of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances and a lawyer with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. “In relation to dealing with the issue of enforced disappearances, Argentina has a clear leadership in the region and is an example of how to do things,” he says. [4]

The Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo)[5], was also created in 1977.

With the restoration of democracy and the creation of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in 1983, Argentina began exhuming unmarked graves in which victims of enforced disappearance were believed to be buried. The need for advanced forensic identification techniques quickly became apparent.  CONADEP and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo obtained the support of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a genetic database was created at Durand Hospital in Buenos Aires, along with a team of forensic anthropologists under the leadership of Dr. Clyde Snow. [6] This was the basis for the creation in 1986 of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). [7]

By October 2015, around 114 individuals illegally adopted during the dictatorship had been united with their families through the efforts of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other groups.

Argentina’s willingness to address the issue of the  missing and disappeared is also evident in the fact that it was one of the initial signatories of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which defines enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity under international law. The Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1992 and came into force in December 2010.

A range of activities to commemorate victims of enforced disappearance have also been undertaken in Argentina as part of a broad national effort to come to terms with the legacy of the dictatorship. These include the Parque de la memoria[8] (Remembrance Park), created in Buenos Aires in 1998, which contains monuments and public art that memorializes the disappeared.

Another chapter in Argentina’s history may start to be addressed in the near future when US military and intelligence records declassified in March 2016 have been studied. The declassification, authorized by US President Barack Obama, is designed to shed light on issues related to US support for the Argentine junta.[9]

For more information on reports and instruments created with reference to Argentina’s missing persons, please visit:




[4] Ibid.



[7] h