I spent several days last week at the International Forum on Archives and Human Rights in Mexico City. Although originally billed as an international conference to bring to together up to 500 archivists and others, it was in fact a small gathering, with only a handful of attendees from outside of Mexico, no prior promotion, and a lack of organization and focus. Definitely a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, some excellent sessions and lots of passionate discourse. A few highlights:

Catherine Kennedy of the South African History Archive gave a presentation entitled “Refiguring the Archive: a Case Study in Archival Activism.” SAHA is an independent organization established by anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s. “SAHA’s central mission is to recapture lost and neglected histories and to record aspects of South African history in the making” (from the website). It has been described as an ‘activist archive,’ a challenge to the prevailing idea within post-apartheid SA that the activist era is over. The activist archive label points to the idea that activism is ongoing; and that archives should be “arenas for contentious co-existence.”

SAHA is thus very engaged in documenting the struggles for justice, in challenging official versions of history, in identifying gaps and omissions from the record, and to serving and representing marginalized voices. She noted that most researchers come to SAHA from outside of South Africa.

Catherine spoke specifically about SAHA’s work with the archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC collection includes the records of the commission, as well as documents and materials about it. Access remains limited, and it is fact unclear which government department actually controls the official records. Most South Africans have never seen the report; the only version published for popular audience is available only in German!

“The records are crucial to hold us accountable… They are a potent bulwark against human rights violations. We must remember our past so we do not repeat it.”
– Desmond Tutu, International Conference of the Round Table on Archives, Cape Town, 2003

Valerie Love of the University of Connecticut described the work of the Thomas J. Dodd Center. Human rights collections include materials from the African National Congress, the International Rescue Committee, and Human Rights Internet. Valerie stressed the need for archivists and HR practitioners to work together, and the importance of archiving new forms of documentation. She spoke of the privacy issues in dealing with human rights-related records; most people have no idea that their personal information will end up in an archive.

She reminded everyone to join the Human Rights Archives listserv, which now has close to 100 members.

Duke University was represented by Patrick Stawski, Human Rights Archivist, and Robin Kirk, Director of the Human Rights Center. At Duke, the effort to begin collecting HR materials began about six years ago, and resulted in the creation of the Archive for Human Rights; The Center began to coalesce shortly thereafter. Duke’s approach is interdisciplinary and very focused on building and sustaining relationships with its donor organizations. Finding aids are online and Google-crawlable. The Archive takes a multi-level processing approach. Collections include those of the Washington Office on Latin America, the ICTJ, and the papers of Marshall Meyer.

Robin gave some background on the Center and on her transition from researcher at Human Rights Watch to Duke. She gave examples of how the Archive and the Center work together, and how archive collections are used in curricula and programming. She also spoke of trying to bring archives into the community, to reinforce the connections between civil rights and human rights. She concluded by stressing that archives are essential in preserving the multitude of narratives, and within human rights contexts what is not the dominant story.

Christian Kelleher, archivist at the University of Texas described a new model of working with grass-roots groups to archive audiovisual records. This year UT received a 1.2 million grant from the Bridgeway Foundation to work with the Kigali Memorial Centre to preserve audiovisual documents relating to the Rwandan genocide. The goal is to digitize the recordings and depositing them in the UT repository, but with the KMC retaining their originals and their ownership. And while UT is purchasing the collection they are not assuming ownership or expatriating the material. The purchase funds allow the organization, with assistance from UT, to develop their own archiving and programming capacity. The KMC can set their own restrictions on use, ie make them public, or selectively available, or restricted; UT also catalogs the material. I think this is a really exciting project, and a great example of how digitization can allow expanded access and increased safety without expropriation.


4 thoughts on “Intl Forum on Archives & Human Rights

  1. Grace –

    Thanks for the posting and for the concise and accurate summary of the conference. I agree with you and Robin – the dichotomy that the organizers posed between the archives of terror (“terror”) and pain (“dolor”) seemed to miss the entire impetus of the human rights movement. The human rights community is one involved in an active struggle for social justice one of whose main goals is to help develop alternative channels for action by those who have suffered human rights abuse: not just terror and pain but truth and ultimately justice. As Robin said, at Duke and other repositories around the world we are building archives of struggle and resistance.

    Another disconcerting matter at this conference was the eagerness with which the conference organizers were ready to jump into the proverbial bed with the Mexican political machine. In fact a great deal of the conference was given over to heaping praise on politicians, giving them a platform for extolling their own virtue, and to providing them with photo ops with the ICA leadership. No cautionary lesson was learned, for example, from Sr. Jose Sotelo Marban’s account of the Mexican government’s betrayal of the truth commission process. The National Security Archives has the final report on its website: it may be the only place to find it:… . Also see ICTJ’s troubling report about the Mexican government’s tinkering with the truth:

    A point of contrast: at the Archives and Human Rights conference I attended in Uruguay in November of this year, the archivists in attendance were very cautious and perhaps skeptical about plans for an “Archivo de la Memoria” about to be established by the Uruguayan government. What would such an entity achieve? How was the government going to provide adequate resources to ensure its success when existing archival institutions were severely underfunded? These questions did not surface in Mexico at all. An excellent summary of the debate by Lourdes Rodriguez titled “Cajas negras – Creación del Archivo de la Memoria se aprobará en el Senado la semana próxima” can be found on page 4 of the Nov 7, 2008 issue of Uruguay’s La Diaria ( ) .

    Finally, I too lament the lack of organization and thought given to this conference. There are many questions I have for participants but I don’t even know who they were since no coherent program was issued and no schedule was followed. What was the big piece of legislation that was so ground breaking for Mexican archives? No resources were provided by the organizers that allow any follow up discussion. As you said: a missed opportunity by all accounts.

  2. Thanks Robin,
    I agree, and like that you articulated that at the conference. The same is true of WITNESS; while the documentation of abuse and transgression is pivotal, it is vital to preserve the stories and documentation of advocacy movements and justice-seeking at the grass-roots and individual level.

  3. Thanks for the shout out! I was especially intrigued by the difference in how the two European guests saw archives as containing either materials about how victims experience terror (archives of pain) or how entities like states impose terror (archives of terror). In contrast, at Duke and within SAHA, we are collecting a lot on how individuals and groups organize to advocate for human rights — archives of mobilization, if you will…

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