The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has just released Documenting Truth, a report of best practices for human rights documentation. The 30-page report is the result of work by the Documentation Affinity Group (DAG), a peer-to-peer network of six diverse NGOs: the ICTJ, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, Humanitarian Law Center (Belgrade), and the Iraq Memory Foundation.
The use of documents is so ingrained within the modern human rights movement, the authors begin, as to seem self-evident; but in fact, the decision by Nuremberg Trials prosecutor Robert Jackson to include documents as evidence in the tribunals was at the time unprecedented and controversial. Documentary evidence is at the heart of legal efforts against perpetrators of abuses, of victims seeking redress or reparations, and the ability of post-conflict societies to establish the truth about their pasts.
The report discusses the various types and purposes of documentation, and covers both the strategic and technical issues. Case studies and concrete examples are included. There is practical information on collecting scope and criteria, document analysis, and document management and storage. There are separate sections on oral history and forensic anthropology. Some of the potentially thorny issues discussed include ownership: ie who owns documents? for example, does the documenting body such as an NGO or truth commission own testimonies of genocide victims, or do the victims themselves retain a moral right? Do governments or their citizens?; retraumatization, the risk of re-violating victims through poorly or excessively conducted collection of testimonies; and politics, the political implications and choices and potential pitfalls inherent in any documentation project.
Documentation projects can benefit considerably from reciprocal networks or partnerships. These can be regional, for example where collections are complementary, and can result in compatible metadata, information sharing and increased capacity. Academic institutions can serve as repositories, sources of expertise, and channels for expanded access.
Documenting Truth articulates clearly why proper documentation is so important to human rights advocacy, and to transitional justice efforts such as prosecution, reparations, education, and reconciliation. WITNESS is not a documentation organization per se, but fundamentals of good documentation necessarily underpin and inform all of our work, from training through archiving. For information about video-specific practice, see Video for Change, WITNESS’s guide to video advocacy, specifically Chapters 4 and 6. One thing I think we need now is a best practices guide for citizen activists and others who are capturing and sharing video content in a more ad hoc way, via cameras or cellphones.