Human Rights Archives: Report from SAA, Part 1

Posted on August 19, 2010 by Yvonne Ng

SAA DC 2010Last week, I attended the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Washington, DC.   There were a number of sessions relevant to human rights archives and archivists this year, most notably the inaugural meeting of the new Human Rights Archives Roundtable, and the panel it organized with the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives Roundtable, entitled “Silence No More! Archives Threatened by Political Instability.”

The purpose of the Human Right Archives Roundtable is to foster dialogue, disseminate information, and serve as a formal venue for the exchange of ideas among archivists and stakeholders working with human rights collections. I hope that it will engender greater collaboration and cooperation with my archival colleagues towards the best possible management of our important human rights documentation.  The initial meeting, involving approximately 20 archivists, scholars, and others interested in human rights archives, was quite promising.  Our preliminary discussion about the goals and activities of the group included ideas such as outreach to archivists at threatened archives; outreach to grassroots human rights organizations; liaising with collecting institutions about collections in need of assistance; and developing the Roundtable website and listserv.

The Roundtable meeting also featured an illuminating update on the Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study by Sarah Van Deusen Phillips from the Center for Research Libraries. This two-year project aims to examine how human rights organizations use digital technology to document human rights abuses, and to identify ways that electronically or digitally produced documentation can be maintained and protected for long-term use.   Drawing from her recent research trips to Chiapas, Mexico and Kigali, Rwanda, Sarah found that while small grassroots organizations are not producing much digital documentation themselves, they are passing information on to larger mid-sized professionalized organizations or central offices that do create digital or digitized content from this material. Sarah discussed the key role played by mid-sized organizations, such ascanalseisdejulio in Mexico City and Ibuka in Kigali, in collecting, digitizing, and transforming content into a variety of digital forms that can be used by larger institutions such as governments, courts, libraries, and the media. The next steps in the project include convening an advisory group to examine best practices, standards, and tools for supporting and maintaining electronic evidence.   Check out Sarah’s excellent blog, The Documentalist, for updates!

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The Human Rights Archives Roundtable also co-sponsored a panel on threatened archives with the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives Roundtable.  The panel featured speakers Dario Euraque, former Director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology & History; Yesenia Martinez, former director of the History Research Unit; Kate Doyle, Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive; and Trudy Huskamp Peterson, former Acting Archivist of the United States.

Dario and Yesenia spoke about the effects of the 2009 coup on the Honduran Center for Historical Documentation and Research (CDIHH), which houses the National Archive of Honduras, among other collections.   They called attention to the dismissalsof high-ranking staff, including themselves, from the Ministry of Culture and the CDIHH by the new government.  They also talked about the community organizing efforts that have taken place against the illegal use of the Antigua Casa Presidencial, the National Monument where the CDIHH is located, as a military recruitment base.

Meanwhile, Kate Doyle spoke about the Guatemalan Police Archives, discovered in an unused building in 2005.   These archives contained a hundred years of police records, including those that chronicle arrests and executions during the 30-year civil war in the country, during which thousands of dissidents were killed or disappeared.   As Kate explained, 200 people were involved in processing, describing, and scanning approximately 11 million pages (8 kilometers of documents!) that are now accessible to the public in the Archives of Central America, copied and stored for safekeeping in Switzerland, and available for use in legal proceedings in Guatemala.

Finally, Trudy Peterson discussed the role that archives play in dealing with the legacy of human rights violations in post-conflict situations.  First, she explained, archival records can be used in investigations that lead to prosecutions, ensuring the right to justice.  Archival records such as employment or political party records can also be used to ensure that members ofpost-conflict institutions were not involved in past violations, thereby promoting non-recurrence and institutional reform efforts.  Thirdly, archives are inextricably linked to national and personal truth-seeking and the right to know. Lastly, archives also play a role in the right to reparations, such as in the use of civil records for the dispensation of compensation, restitution of property, restoration of citizenship, social rehabilitation, and other compensations.

Look out for more of my SAA round-up in the next few days!

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