Human Rights Archives and Documentation: Meeting the Needs of Research, Teaching, Advocacy and Social Justice. Hosted by Columbia’s Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research, the conference was really an excellent first step in promoting collaboration and dialogue among different kinds of organizations dealing with human rights materials. Participants included archivists from academic institutions, and advocates or archivists working for human rights organizations. Alison Des Forges spoke about retrieving documents in Rwanda after the genocide, Paul Dicker recounted the convoluted journey of the Iraqi Secret Police files of the Anfal from Iraq to the US; Kate Doyle told the tale of the discovery Guatemalan Nattional Police archives, just to name a few. A few of my takeaways:

–archivists are or are trying to address the shift to a wider definition of rights, including economic, social and cultural rights;

–archives are collecting two types of hr collections: those focused on the primary documents, whether engendered by regimes or perpetrators, or created by HR organizations, and those of human rights instituitions themselves, which document the work and methodologies of advocates and social justice movements.

–regarding the first, there is a real need to educate human rights organizations about the crucial role that archives play for truth-seeking and pursuit of justice – and not as mere research materials. The work of archivists does not inhabit the same urgent space as that of advocates dealing with life-and-death matters, but it is nonetheless crucial. The Special Tribunal for Cambodia is only now getting underway, 30 years after the genocide of 1975-79.

–regarding the second, there is tremendous interest on the part of academic institutions to collect and research the instituitonal records of ngos. HR organizations may be even less aware of this need. The growth of the NGO movement has been a remarkable phenomenon of the last 30 years; the ways that documentation, reporting and advocacy have evolved, have shifted legal frameworks, have changed the consciousness and assumptions within international community, is really important.

Suggestions were made that academic archives or perhaps the Center for Research Libraries might play a role in organizing trainings or develop collection management policies, but unless there is someone devoted at the organizations to actually perform this work, an archivist or records manager, I doubt there is much these would accomplish. It’s really a cultural and educational issue: adminstrators, boards, activists and donors need to be made aware of the relevance of collecting and documentation to their core missions. We need real-life stories that illustrate this, and also somehow demonstrate that without conscious, skilled and supported efforts, there is a continual irretrievable loss of documentation due to lack of infrstructure or protocols. There is some irony in hearing how courageous human rights defenders such as Alsion Des Forges have worked` to prevent the destruction of documents by criminal regimes, while some of our own records may be in peril due to ignorance or a lack of resources. By the time collections find repositories they may already be highly compromised.

There was much, much more which I may get to in coming days. If it can further the level of communication, resource-sharing and other collaboration among these constituencies, that alone will be an accomplishment.

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