Use of DNA Identification in Human Rights Work to Reunite Families in Latin America


DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) identification serves many purposes, including the preservation and defence of human rights. In Argentina, a military dictatorship disappeared 30 000 dissidents, including 500 babies born in captivity and, after their mothers' assassination, were appropriated by families associated with the repression. After return to democracy, search, localisation, DNA identification and family reunification were state policies and so far 120 individuals had their identity restituted and families reunited. When after a gruesome civil war in El Salvador caused 75 000 deaths and hundreds of missing children, a DNA database of families with disappeared children was developed and DNA testing of hundreds of people with unknown identity lead to identification and reunification of 265 youngsters with their families. In Brazil, DNA identification of hundreds of individuals who were stranded from their relatives during compulsory isolation of patients with leprosy in Brazil, identified 158 pairs of individuals who did not have know they were siblings. In conclusion, the use of DNA identification as a tool to redress and repair human rights violations is a novel and valuable application of human genetics.

Key Concepts

  • DNA technology by itself is not good or bad; its ethics depends on the objectives for which it is used and the voluntary consent on those to whom it is applied.
  • Forced disappearance and abduction of children with suppression of their identity are crimes against humanity.
  • International law of human rights obligates states to solve crimes against humanity, find and prosecute perpetrators and provide reparations to victims.
  • While in general genetic tests should be voluntary, according to international law of human rights, they could be imposed to a nonconsenting individual if needed to solve a crime against humanity.
  • The right to know the truth about one's own identity should guide DNA identification.
  • The use of DNA identification for the defence of human rights should be protected by the state.

Keywords: Latin America; human rights violations; forced disappearance; suppression of identity; leprosy isolation; forensic genetics; DNA identification; family reunification

Figure 1. Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo demonstrating in the streets of Buenos Aires in 1984 to demand the restitution of their appropriated grandchildren. The text of the banner says: “Where are the hundreds of babies born in captivity?”
Figure 2. In October 1981, more than 500 persons were murdered by the army of El Salvador during the Massacre of “La Quesera”, with many children abducted from their families. Nicolás was one of them. His mother, Milagros, lost three more children in the massacre. In 2016, Pro‐Búsqueda's forensic genetics team found a “cold hit” between the DNA profile from an adopted young adult searching for his genetic identity and that of Milagros, which was in the database. The picture shows the family reunion on January 16, 2016, with the embrace of Milagros and her son Nicolás.


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Further Readings

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Penchaszadeh, Victor B(Dec 2016) Use of DNA Identification in Human Rights Work to Reunite Families in Latin America. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027009]