This is a guest post from Catherine Kennedy, Director of the South Africa History Archive (SAHA).  I heard Catherine deliver the paper from which this is derived at the recent Archives Without Borders conference, within a thematic stream titled “Archival Solidarity,” and asked her to contribute to our archival activism series; her experience resonates deeply with our own, and she has important insights about the intersection of archives and human rights advocacy.  – Grace

The Documentation Affinity Group (DAG) is a small international peer-to-peer network of local action groups originally established by six NGOs in 2005 to consider the role of documentation in protecting and promoting human rights worldwide. Operating within the context of transitional justice, the organizational members of the DAG are generally working in societies battling against or emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict, as well as in newly established democracies where historical injustices remain unresolved, including Cambodia, Guatemala, Burma, Iraq, Serbia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Africa.  The DAG network has attempted to share best practices in documentation and archival work so as to support victims of human rights abuse, promote their right to truth, justice and reparations, and provide the basis for reconciliation, recovery and the creation of a more open and just society.


DAG members are generally not organizations that would primarily define themselves as archives but, within the context of archival activism, it is worth reflecting how and why the Documentation Affinity Group can be viewed as a project in archival solidarity. As a starting point, consider the International Council of Archives’ conceptualization of archival solidarity as “co-ordinate(d) efforts in the international archives community to carry out foreign assistance projects to develop tools and expertise for developing communities and communities in transition.” While well-intentioned, this conceptualization, to me, seems to locate archival solidarity to some extent in a benevolence model in which archivists from richer, stable, democratic nations volunteer to help archivists and archives in poorer, less stable countries, often without fully recognizing the realities, idiosyncrasies of documentation projects taking place on the ground, the challenges faced by ‘archives from below,’ if you will.

Human rights organizations have in recent years begun to recognize the importance of documentation to their missions.  Though there is a growing awareness that a greater understanding and application of archival principles to their work is vital in order to ensure historical accountability through establishing credible evidence, distrust of official institutions, including state archives, remains strong amongst human rights activists – often with good cause, given the historic complicity of archives in repressive regimes.   Additionally, within volatile contexts in which resources are stretched, and it is near impossible to weigh up urgency against importance, archiving is understandably not prioritized.

In line with theories that have emerged from the study of memory as it relates to the Holocaust, there seems to be a ‘latency period’, memory gap or a delayed reaction within the very structure of trauma – it can take several decades before the impetus to review traumatic periods of history returns.  Within this context, NGOs have a vital role to play in ensuring that primary source materials are collected and preserved now, in order for future generations to be able to analyze these materials so as to guard against revisionism.

As expressed in Documenting Truth, a DAG publication written by the founding members, DAG organizations consider themselves to be “active participants in debates and activities concerned with justice, accountability, truth-telling, historical memory and transitional justice,” and concerned primarily with how documents can be used.   While rooted in present ‘action,’ rather than preservation, these organizations are all cognizant of the pluralistic nature of human rights records, with utility and function shifting with context over space and time.  This awareness  is a key consideration informing the types of lessons that are shared between member organizations operating in countries at different stages in the transition from conflict.


Since its inception, the activities of the DAG have operated around a series of in-country meetings, generally hosted by one of the member organizations. These meetings have focused on the specific human rights environment in the host country, usually centering on an over-arching theme or issue identified by the host member organization as essential to their work. DAG members thus become more familiar with the challenges faced in other contexts by their colleagues and provide peer-to-peer support and technical assistance, sometimes in conjunction with international experts from organizations such as Benetech and Huridocs.

The overriding principle that holds the DAG network together as a group is a commitment to the need to ‘tell the story.’  This is undertaken through a range of strategies and interventions, including the recording of voice and testimony through oral history projects, the preservation of official records of totalitarian regimes as evidence of their crimes and a bulwark against amnesia, and the use of unofficial records such as bones, the body, as primary source.  These initiatives have been undertaken to support legal claims, to facilitate some sort of resolution or closure to victims and their families, to influence national dialogue and shape policy, and to contribute to the historical record and the construction of social memory, the ongoing process of negotiating over what we choose to remember and forget, and the role primary source materials play in that process.  Recurring themes have been identified for consideration, including ethical questions around ensuring that documentation efforts do no harm or injustice, the need for transparent processes, objectivity (as opposed to neutrality) and a conscious recognition of bias and the inherently political nature of documenting and archiving; the importance of risk assessment in terms of the security of both documents and personnel; and the strategic value of networking and solidarity in the world of human rights documentation and archiving.

I am by no means attempting to present the DAG as a model for archival solidarity – its growth has been organic, erratic and thwarted by lack of funds and difficulties in coordination. But in my experience of the DAG since 2008, there has been a wonderful element of invigoration and solidarity in providing a space for reciprocal exchange between local action groups approaching the challenges of documentation from different transitional stages, and from professional perspectives outside the archival community. It is worth remembering that networking itself can be an important strategy to resist authoritarianism, especially when one considers the extent to which oppressive regimes exert control by making people work in isolation, limiting opportunity to share experience.

The work of the DAG members arguably presents examples of both the process and product of archive in action, and provides the archival profession with an interesting opportunity to expand the definition of what constitutes archival solidarity, by taking cognizance of  the often legitimate distrust of the archival profession by activist groupings operating within unstable contexts, of the varying availability of expertise and  financial and human resources available to most local action groups, and to consider the ways in which archivists can more effectively support such groupings of non-professionals.   By embedding archival principles in activism, communities in conflict may contribute directly to the shaping of their historical record.

This post is based on a paper entitled Embedding archive in activism: considering the work of the Documentation Affinity Group presented at the International Congress Archives without Borders on August 30 and 31, 2010 in the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands.

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