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Global Resources Forum: "Human Rights Archives and Documentation: Meeting the Needs of Research, Teaching, Advocacy and Justice."

Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.
President, The Center for Research Libraries


Web page for Martus software used by human rights organizations to protect sensitive information and shield the identities of victims and witnesses.

To explore these issues further the CRL Global Resources Network, with Columbia's Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research, and the University of Texas Libraries, held a two-day colloquium titled: “Human Rights Archives and Documentation: Meeting the Needs of Research, Teaching, Advocacy and Justice." The conference was held October 4–6, 2007.

Videos of the presentations and discussions, and the full text of some of the presentations, are available on the conference Web site at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/humanrights/conferences/2007/. The videos will also be archived by CRL.

The event—the second in the series of Global Resources Forums—provided a larger venue on the subject for those engaged in archiving, activism, legal training, teaching, and policy and historical research. It brought together representatives from the worlds of human rights advocacy, law, policy research, history, archives, and libraries to consider how human rights-related documentation and evidence have been preserved and maintained in the past, and to determine how best to meet the new challenges identified at the MacArthur meeting.

Presenters described several instances of libraries and archives preserving important human-rights related documentation and evidence. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration holds the proceedings of the trials of the leadership of Japan and Nazi Germany for war crimes following World War II, and the recorded interviews of Holocaust survivors are preserved by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Consulting archivists Trudy Peterson and Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives spoke about large collections of recent human rights-related documentation whose fates are uncertain.

Representatives of WITNESS, Amnesty International, and several other advocacy groups then recounted recent developments in human rights monitoring and adjudication. They described new types of documentation and evidence now being created and encountered in the course of their activity and the problems that collecting and maintaining new and traditional forms of documentation can pose for activists and activist organizations.

Presenters from Columbia University School of Law, the American Bar Association Digital Evidence Project, Human Rights Watch, and the International Center for Transitional Justice provided greater detail about how activists, jurists, and the courts use documentation and evidence in their work, to what degree such materials are important to legal proceedings, and how they deal with challenges to the disclosure and admissibility of materials in a legal setting.

Finally, educators, researchers, and teachers in the fields of law, social science, and history provided perspective on the uses of documentation and evidence in teaching and research. The Cline Center Event Analysis project illustrated how, in the fields of social science and policy research, documentation is being processed and mined by intelligent machines and software. Alice Miller pointed out that teaching human rights is “an endless process of engagement and dialogue," and that pedagogy must acknowledge that the concept of human rights was constructed, has changed over time, and will continue to change.

Varieties of Evidence and Documentation

Presenters described several major types of documentation and the challenges that these pose for those who collect, use, and maintain them. While technological obsolescence was perceived a problem, more frequently cited were matters of access, privacy, and control.

  • Official records of oppressive regimes, such as the Guatemalan National Police files; records of the Khmer Rouge Santebal police; the files of the East German Stasi secret police; documents of the Iraqi government genocide of the Kurds at Sulimaniya discovered in Northern Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War. These present special problems of protecting privacy of victims and protecting subjects from potential harm or retribution. They also create awkwardness for current regimes and their allies, often involving matters of national sovereignty.
  • Official records of the proceedings of temporary tribunals and commissions, such as the 1946–1948 Tokyo War Crimes Trials; records of the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia; and International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda and the recordings/transcripts of the testimony given before those courts. These are frequently supplemented by the personal files of judges and other officials attached to those proceedings. Because these courts are usually temporary, the matter of long-term control and accountability for maintaining these materials is often unresolved, leaving victims, survivors, witnesses, and others vulnerable to retribution.
  • Media-generated materials such as press clippings and tapes and transcripts of broadcasts of news reports of suicides and arrests of sexual minorities collected by Sangama in India; the Cline Center’s database of news reports from FBIS, BBC, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; press materials collected by groups monitoring the media. Here there are restrictions imposed on reuse of proprietary content and undefined requirements for preserving the original context of the reports.
  • “Citizen-generated" documentation includes cell-phone photographs of recent protests in Myanmar/Burma; postcards to Amnesty International written during a 1980s campaign to recognize wife beating as a violation; video recordings of incidents and violations produced by citizens trained and equipped by WITNESS; and the cell-phone videos of the execution of Saddam Hussein. The usefulness of these forms of evidence often requires collectors to obtain the consent of subjects, and rights to use from producers. The technological obsolescence and compatibility of numerous popular platforms for digital video pose problems as well.
  • Personal testimonies, such as recorded interviews of Mexican seasonal migrant workers on matters of women’s health, conducted by Centro Mujeres; filmed testimonies of Holocaust survivors maintained by the Visual History Foundation; and audio taped confessions of Khmer Rouge field commanders collected by the Documentation Center of Cambodia. These often must be handled carefully to balance the need to protect the privacy of victims and subjects with the need to support prosecution, reparations, and the public record.
  • Other kinds of materials created or collected by monitoring groups, such as forensic evidence and data about human remains gathered by the Serious Crimes Unit of the United Nations Mission of Assistance to East Timor and Web sites generated by human rights groups and archived by the Cline Center and others.
  • The papers and internal records of advocacy and activist organizations themselves, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

A Multitude of Stakeholder Interests in Preservation

Presentations and discussions also illuminated the needs of the variety of parties that have a stake in how documentation and evidence are handled. In maintaining such materials organizations must address a wide spectrum of needs. They must weigh and reconcile the demands of some stakeholder groups for access to information against those of others for non-disclosure. Because the needs of historians and the courts vary, testimony and evidence might serve the purposes of both truth commissions and civil court prosecutions, but might need to be presented differently for each.

  • Courts, governments—While the arguments of jurists and the decisions of the courts need to be supported with documentation, the value of paper documents varies from one jurisdiction to the other. Alison DesForges pointed out that in Canadian courts, “Documents are hearsay," but that in Rwanda a letter provided the basis for conviction of an individual for genocide.
  • Victims and survivors of victims—Investigators and jurists’ interests are sometimes at odds with victims’ needs for privacy or even in secret. The imperative for individual privacy and confidentiality is often trumped by the psycho-social needs of affected societies for reparations and reconciliation, exposing those in possession of documentation to conflicting demands. Graeme Simpson observed that “forensic truth" differs from “psychological truth," but that both combine to produce the “meta-narrative" about a society’s history.
  • Advocates—Ethical problems can arise in the archiving of the internal documents of organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, which might be under attack by governments or groups. The custodial organization needs to address the matter of eventual disclosure of internal documents and sensitive information early in its collecting activities.
  • Policy researchers, historians, teachers, and others outside the affected societies are considered secondary stakeholders in the preservation of the archives, but can contribute to the well-being of societies by promoting understanding of data and past events recorded in archives.
  • Archiving organizations—Custodial organizations must mitigate the threats, arising from their archives, of legal and financial jeopardy and even physical harm not only to external parties, but to their own operations and effectiveness.

Broad Goals for Library Action

The conference culminated in a working session during which attendees identified roles that libraries can play in ensuring the integrity and preservation of evidence and documentation. The session identified three fundamental policy considerations that should inform work by libraries that preserve and maintain human rights-related documentation:

  1. Avoiding the “Elgin Marbles Syndrome"
    The prevailing model for preserving cultural materials, exemplified by the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles by the British Museum, involves Western institutions “harvesting" documentation and evidence from the communities to which those materials pertain. This generally returns few significant benefits to those communities and even results in “asymmetry of access." Because of this, and because of the special problems associated with human rights-related documentation, it is more appropriate for Western libraries and archives to support archiving within the affected societies wherever possible. Such support would help build capabilities for preserving and protecting memory materials as a component of civil society.
  2. Achieving a High Level of Commitment
    There are potential risks and uncertainties attendant in dealing with human rights-related materials, which are often politically sensitive and can be potential sources of legal, financial, or physical harm to individuals or organizations. Thus collecting and preserving such materials on a meaningful scale by academic libraries, and dealings with organizations and governments with regard to such materials, will have to involve a clear commitment from the university at the highest level.
  3. Preserving Institutional Credibility
    Libraries, particularly Western academic and research libraries, have long been regarded as impartial, disinterested custodians of the historical record. This has been essential to their role in preserving the integrity of documents and their chain of provenance. This credibility stems in part from fact that libraries are embedded in universities, which tend to provide long-term continuity and to be dedicated to fostering free inquiry. The library sector in democratic societies, moreover, is guided by established ethical conventions, such as an emphasis on barrier-free access and the confidentiality of records of materials consulted by patrons. In their interactions with governments, activist organizations, and funders in connection with human rights documentation, libraries will have to be careful to avoid the perception of political bias or orientation, or competing with NGOs for support.

What a Global Resources Human Rights Archives and Documentation Effort Might Look Like

The forum provided a clear blueprint for immediate and long-term library action. Consensus of the attendees was that libraries must support the effective collecting, safekeeping, and appropriate accessibility of archives and documentation regarding violations of human rights and the prevention and prosecution of those abuses in all world regions. The term “human rights" as applied here would refer to those rights specifically described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Such efforts should encompass the records of official tribunals, courts, truth commissions, and investigations of human rights violations; the records of non-governmental organizations devoted to monitoring and documenting human rights violations; the evidence and documentation collected by those official and non-governmental organizations; and independently gathered documentation of such violations.

Three basic activities should be undertaken:

  1. Support the placement of human rights-related archives and documentation in appropriate, qualified repositories that are well positioned to serve the interests of the victims and affected communities, national and international legal regimes, and future historians. The most urgent need in this area is to press the United Nations to provide for the long-term preservation of the records of the international criminal tribunals it established in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.
  2. Support efforts by NGOs and local and regional archives and organizations to identify, gather, and effectively maintain human rights-related documentation and evidence, by assisting them in strengthening their technical, legal, organizational, and administrative capabilities.
  3. Facilitate the preservation and accessibility of human rights-related archives and documentation by providing GRN institutions information about the nature and status of such materials, and other information and communications support for their collecting and preservation activities.

As an immediate first step CRL Global Resources Network initiated a campaign to encourage the United Nations to provide for the protection and proper disposition of the records of the international criminal tribunals established by the UN in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere since 1993. The survival of these records is an issue of grave importance and urgency to the academic community and CRL constituents are now urging the U.S. Department of State to take a position in favor of prompt measures by the UN to ensure their permanent retention and protection.

In the coming months CRL Global Resources will endeavor to bring together a community of interest within the CRL membership to implement and support the activities outlined above. This effort must involve cooperation between a variety of actors, including local activist organizations, governments, and international non-governmental organizations, as well as research libraries. CRL has a long history of promoting such collaboration. We will report on this effort as it develops.