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Exhuming Spain’s Violent History: Forensics, DNA, and Rewriting the Past


Scholars have argued that the state has the power not only to decide who lives and who dies, but also has multiple “modalities of power deployment over the production and management of the dead,” known as necropower. However, the emergence of a forensics-based human rights social movement raises larger questions about how activists in post-conflict states are using forensic science to seize this nexus of state necropower. My research thus focuses on understanding: How are human rights activists using forensics and DNA testing to reframe histories of violence? How are these human rights activists using various mechanisms (globalized conceptions of human rights, transnational activist networks, international law, pedagogy, performance, embodiment)to further their goals of restoring identity, memory, and justice within a globalized context? This study seeks to explore these questions through a case study of the silencing of the past in Spain. My analysis draws on a mixed methods approach, including a 15-month participant observation study, over 234 in-depth interviews, and a historical analysis of secondary literature.

Chapter 2, Human Rights Forensics, A Global Movement Born in Death, focuses on the work of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who initiated and globalized this movement in response to the violent military regime that terrorized Argentina from 1976-1983 and left at least 30,000 people missing. It draws from a variety of data sources, including historical secondary literature, legal cases, and interviews with the leaders of the EAAF and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, as well as two months of observational data collected in Argentina in 2015. This chapter builds the groundwork of how forensics-based human rights transnational movement began, flourished, and spread. It shows that the Argentinean example may be one of the only fully successful cases of activists seizing control of a dominant narrative of state terror. Furthermore, chapter 2 problematizes the unforeseen challenges that forensics-based human rights can face when it reifies genetic kinship ties over other types of familial connections.

I further analyze the impact of the EAAF and the Grandmothers’ globalization of this movement in an in-depth case study of Spain’s most prolific human rights forensic organization—the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH). My analyses draw on a 15-month participant observation of the ARMH, over 230 in-depth interviews, and a discourse analysis of visitors’ guest books from ARMH exhumations. I approach the case study through an in-depth analysis of three key dimensions: Performance, Pedagogy, and International Connections. I argue that these three dimensions illustrate the complex, overlapping, and sometimes-contradictory tactics that ARMH activists use in their reframing of Spain’s violent past. Chapters 4-6 thus represent the core of the research, with each chapter directly corresponding to each of these dimensions.

In sum, I find that, by basing their claims in science, human rights activists transform perceptions of them from prejudiced activists with political goals into objective experts. Using science, international protocols, and tropes of modernity; activists depoliticize their version of state terror. I illustrate how, by using this ‘depoliticized approach,’ human rights activists successfully seize necropower from the state, meaningfully change how people understand and remember past violence, mold transitional justice efforts, restitute the identities of missing persons, and facilitate important death rituals for victims’ families. I further find, that in the Spanish case, due to an old and long history of institutionalized silence and fear, activists have to work harder to break the silence of the past. To do this, they use performative actions, such as teaching forensics classes to local Spaniards who are visiting mass grave exhumations. These performances promote the ARMH’s ‘de-politicized’ science driven narrative of Spain’s violent history, as well as introduce moral claims about the rights of the victims’ families and the need for transitional justice. Moreover, I find that the ARMH, as members of a transnational social movement, is influenced by the growth of the larger movement, whose sovereignty and legitimacy has risen—in many cases—above that of the nation-state.

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