Guest post from Bruce P. Montgomery, author of Richard B. Cheney and the Rise of the Imperial Vice Presidency:

As a matter of discussion, it may be instructive to look at how many post-authoritarian countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere have addressed their archives of repression. In most cases, efforts to pass lustration laws and open up secret police files to citizens in order to come to terms with the past and advance reconciliation have been mixed or fared poorly. The Czechs passed a lustration law disqualifying former collaborators from government service, but it also ignited repeated political scandals stemming from unsubstantiated charges. By the time they set up a limited system allowing citizens to see their secret police files, much of the documentation had been destroyed. The Slovakians made no effort even to pass a lustration law or open up the files of the former regime to its citizens, fearing political turmoil. In Poland, communist functionaries retained control of the secret service files long enough to destroy fully half of them and corrupt many others as a reliable source. After repeated failures to adopt a lustration law, the Polish government finally created a lustration court in 1997 to address the guilt or innocence of the communist era. Few judges wanted to serve on the court and render decisions affecting the careers of government officials. In 1998, the Polish parliament established an Institute for National Memory, but limited citizens’ access to the secret files of the former regime. And in 2006, Poland’s leaders, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical twins who served respectively as president and prime minister, pushed through a new lustration law to open up millions of volumes of communist-era secret police files to vanquish “the post-communist monster” that the brothers claim still haunted Poland. The law ignited fears of a massive witch hunt in calling for compulsory vetting of diplomats, local officials, board members of state-owned companies, media bosses, headmasters, lawyers, and journalists—a list that threatened to cover hundreds of thousands among Poland’s 38-million population. In Hungary, the secret police files of the communist era also had been widely purged and the government imposed strict limits on access, effectively shielding the identities of past informers. Like other post-communist governments in Eastern Europe, Hungary evidently feared opening up a Pandora’s Box, politicizing both the past and present. In many of these cases, newly democratic governments abandoned the German model of allowing citizens to view their secret police files in favor of imposing renewed secrecy or limited access to fend off bitter controversy and social and political instability.

Similar concerns derailed efforts at rendering justice and opening up secret police files in Latin America as the price for maintaining fragile stability. In several cases, prosecuting those responsible for human rights crimes raised the specter of destabilizing post-authoritarian governments and plunging them back into civil conflict. In 1983, the President of Argentina, Raul Alfonsin, set up a truth commission to investigate and prosecute those responsible for disappearances and other crimes during seven and a half years of military rule. Although several military leaders, including two former presidents of Argentina, were convicted and sentenced, efforts to carry out additional prosecutions were soon abandoned when lower military officials instigated several military rebellions, leading Alfonsin to call of the trials. Truth commissions were also established in El Salvador and Chile using the secret police archives of the former regimes, but both countries ruled out prosecutions. El Salvador’s amnesty law is now about to expire and the human rights office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador may attempt to initiative prosecutions before domestic and international courts.

If these experiences are any indication, they also provide little confidence in how the Saddam Hussein regime’s archives will ultimately be handled. Few other post-authoritarian governments have experienced the depths of Iraqi sectarianism. Perhaps biggest political sin of most long time observers of the abuses of the Baath Party has been grossly underestimating the deleterious consequences of 30 years of extreme dictatorship on reconstruction, identity-formation, and nation-building. Many in the Iraqi exile community and elsewhere underestimated the tremendous sectarianism that would ravage a supposedly liberated Iraq. Without political reconciliation or otherwise fully integrating the Sunnis into the political system, it is highly questionable whether Iraq can become a functioning democracy.

Under these circumstances, it is also doubtful that the Sunnis would want to see a resource center or monument to the crimes of Hussein and his Baathist regime where the mass trove of politically explosive documents would be open for public viewing. To them, it might resemble more a memorial of indictment. There is also the possibility that the documents would be used by the central government’s intelligence services or political or religious parties to single out individuals for retributive violence or revenge killings. Since Hussein’s security archives could be used to identify thousands of former security agents and collaborators, former Baathists would have considerable motivation to destroy them. In 2003, Baathist operatives attempted to torch Saddam-era records in the Iraq Library and Archives to eliminate incriminating evidence. They would have strong motive to do so again unless efforts to reach political reconciliation proved successful, perhaps an implausible scenario for years to come.

None of this bodes well.

BRUCE P. MONTGOMERY is Associate Professor and Faculty Director of Archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the founding director of the UCB Human Rights Initiative and a founding member of the International Federation of Human Rights Centers and Archives. He has served as an analyst of classified documents for the US government. He is the author of The Bush-Cheney Administration’s Assault on Open Government (Praeger, 2008) and Subverting Open Government: White House Materials and Executive Branch Politics. Articles by Montgomery on the aggrandizement of the executive branch have appeared in many journals and newspapers, including Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, and the Washington Post.

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