In mid-April, an episode of NPR program “Speaking of Faith,” featuring a representative of the Argentine forensic anthropology team (EAAF) aired. The guest spoke about how recovering the remains of victims of repressive regimes leads to healing, the re-writing of history, and the prosecution of justice. As an anthropologist/aspiring human rights archivist, I agree wholeheartedly that gaining control over a loved ones remains is a crucial step in the process of moving beyond a catastrophic wave of violence perpetrated often by ones own government and/or neighbors. My internship at WITNESS has led me to consider the existence of a special role that new media and web archives play in creating an immediate and lasting memory for the above purposes (healing, history and justice), and how forensics and archives can collaborate to advocate for victims’ rights. In contrast but also as a compliment to forensics, a human rights media archive can provide a sort of bone-by-bone retrieval and preservation system. While on the EAAF site, I found that WITNESS has partnered with them to make a video about the role of forensics in human rights advocacy as well.
The Center for Research Libraries has a great article that explicates the role that forensics, archives and truth commissions can and should play in healing and justice. Although these methods vary widely in practice and theory, these methodologies seek to reconcile with the past, bring attention to the present, and prevent future abuses. How is it that recovering someone’s remains and capturing a moment of abuse or protest on video have so much in common? They both document that something happened, that an event took place, and that there was a victim and a perpetrator. This may seem simple, but the blurring and/or erasure of these very facts are responsible for immense suffering. The mission statement of the WITNESS Media Archive “to collect, document, preserve and provide access to audiovisual human rights media in the support of advocacy, prosecution of justice, truth-telling, and the historical record” sounds similar to the mission of a forensic anthropologist, which seems to be to collect, document and provide access to the remains of victims, support families, and aid in the prosecution of justice in trials and truth commissions.
So where do new media and human rights advocacy fit in? It is important to see the media technology that we have access to today as another element in the archival/forensic framework of reconstructing the past and present to more accurately reflect the truth. While at WITNESS, I have seen that immediate and global access to video as a tool to document human rights abuses has been integrated into this anthropological/forensic framework. Before access to media, the best we could do was give back stolen records 50 years later, and dig up bones 50 years later. Today we can make videos in collaboration with other activists and in direct opposition to the current repressive regime or perpetrator. We can collaborate with victims of human rights abuses on videos that expose the present (not just the past) injustice and work towards changing it.