The Survival of Human Rights-Related Documentation and Evidence

The ability of governments, courts, and civil society to deter and punish genocide, state-sponsored violence, and other violations of human rights depends upon access to evidence in the form of documentation of such crimes, and to the records of investigations and proceedings against perpetrators. Truth commissions also rely upon documentation in many forms to carry out their mission of revealing the human cost of atrocity. A credible record of the past is fundamental to healthy civil societies.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence of human rights violations and the records of many courts, commissions, and tribunals simply disappear. This is due to environmental conditions hostile to paper, film, and other tangible recording media, the inherently fugitive nature of electronic communications, and the instability or discontinuity of civil regimes in the regions of origin. While CRL and its member libraries have done much in the past to preserve such materials, today’s challenges require new strategies, approaches, and partnerships.

Types of Human Rights Documentation and Evidence

Documentation and evidence relating to human rights take a number of forms:

Primary Evidence

Documentation of human rights violations and the events surrounding violations exist in the form of audio, photographs, video and film recordings, and paper and electronic text. Examples: the Guatemalan National Police files and Associated Press news photographs of the chemical massacres of the residents of Halabja in northern Iraq.


Written, film, and audio confessions by perpetrators of human rights violations and statements by witnesses of the violations, victims, and survivors of victims. Examples: Western eyewitness accounts of the Japanese massacres of Chinese civilians in Nanking in 1936–1938; photographs of individuals disappeared under the Pinochet regime in Chile and transcripts of statements regarding same made by relatives, maintained by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad; testimonies of Holocaust survivors maintained by the USC Visual History Foundation; audio taped confessions of Khmer Rouge field commanders held by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Records of Investigations

The official files and records of investigations and monitoring efforts conducted by governments, intergovernmental bodies, and human rights advocacy and watchdog groups, which may include any or all of the above types of evidence. Examples: Photographs of the dead at Halabja in 1988 made by the Iranian Red Crescent Society; forensic evidence gathered by the Serious Crimes Unit of the United Nations Mission of Assistance to East Timor; statistical reports of human rights abuses gathered and disseminated by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights monitors.

Records of Proceedings

The official files and records of courts, tribunals, and truth commissions, which may also include any or all of the above types of evidence. Examples: Official records of the proceedings of the 1946–1948 Tokyo War Crimes Trials; transcripts of the Amnesty Hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; 16,000 testimonies compiled by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the database created to process those testimonies.

Collecting and Maintaining Human Rights-Related Documentation

Hundreds of organizations throughout the world collect and preserve evidence and documentation of human rights violations, including North American and UK research libraries and archives. The US National Archives and Records Administration, for example, holds the records of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and the Tokyo War Crimes trials. The Area Microform Projects at the Center for Research Libraries have preserved numerous collections of historical materials documenting human rights violations and advocacy in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Many organizations that maintain important evidence of human rights violations, however, are not libraries, archives, or other traditional "memory institutions," but civil society organizations and government agencies. Non-governmental advocacy organizations like the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, the Vicaría de la Solidaridad in Chile, Memoria Abierta in Argentina, the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, and many others also gather and maintain documentation of abuses. Such evidence is collected to support these organizations’ work in monitoring human rights violations and seeking redress for the victims and their families.

Others are official government agencies of various countries, charged with investigating crimes against humanity, prosecuting perpetrators, and administering reparations and reconciliation for victims. These include the Department of Justice in South Africa and the Presidential Committee on Human Rights in the Philippines.

Still others are temporary local or international tribunals, established for finite periods of time and thus are not intended to maintain a continuous presence.

These NGOs and governmental bodies maintain evidence not for purposes of academic research but rather to support litigation on behalf of victims, civil and criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of that violence, and reparations made by governments to victims and survivors. The documentation is used by investigators and forensic specialists, prosecutors and advocates, government agencies, officers of the tribunals and international courts, and human rights organizations and monitors.

Often, considerable time elapses—sometimes decades—between the event documented and the proceedings in which the evidence is used. This interim period, and the conditions under which the evidence is often maintained, can put materials at considerable risk, threatening to deprive the victims and survivors of the means of redress and hampering the work of the courts and tribunals.

Threats include the destruction or loss of integrity owing to the perishable nature of paper, audio, and film materials, especially in tropical climates. Destruction also occurs through deliberate human intervention, loss of provenance, and technological obsolescence of electronic formats and storage media. Even the organizations that maintain human rights archives are exposed to legal and financial jeopardy caused by inadvertent infringement of copyrights and violation of privacy or confidentiality.

Few of these organizations are actually libraries, since national and even university libraries in many regions cannot be trusted to preserve materials that could potentially incriminate powerful public figures or government officials.

If documentation and evidence is to remain available for future legal proceedings, policy researchers, and historians, measures must be taken to strengthen the ability of these entities to maintain the integrity and usability of these resources and to provide for their appropriate disposition and long-term care.