This first discussion thread is meant to help lay the ground work for the rest of the dialogue. To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:
- How is archiving connected to human rights work?
- Why are human rights archives important?
- Why should human rights activists be concerned about archiving?
Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!
Hi all! welcome and thanks for joining. To kick off I will answer the above question on a very broad basis, but please feel free to add:
How do archives support and promote human rights?
Human rights archives take many forms; but common to all I think is the idea that preserving truth is essential to protecting rights, to seeking redress, and to supporting reconciliation or recovery in damaged societies. Within the HR advocacy world (where I sit) it has been difficult to grasp the value of archival activities, simply because advocacy is so focused on the urgent present. But recent developments in international justice are addressing crimes long past – eg in Cambodia, Guatemala – and the potential power of archives and documentation have become more apparent. At WITNESS one of our goals as archivists is to make sure that documentation created today is not only used in current advocacy, but also preserved for future needs, be they legal or educational.
I will also like to underscore the impact of the developments of international justice. Within the criminal cases, there is also an element of recognizition of the records not just as evidence of the crimes, but as critical to provide an important context to the particular crimes committed. As part of my research I have read multiple court decisions from Guatemala, Argentina, etc. These decisions also become an historical record of the past. Furthermore, reading these documents written by the court and addressing extensively about the value of the archival materials is a powerful example of the role of archives and records in these mechanisms.
Hi Joel - would you like to share some specific examples?
Sure. Here are two examples with some background and references
1. Orletti Motors
Orletti Motors was a detention center located in Argentina. It was one of the centers in Argentina that were used as part of Operation Condor, a collaborative campaign by the dictatorships in the Southern Cone to share intelligence and which involved kidnapping, torture and political assassinations.
On September 6, 2006, and Argentine federal judge found probable cause for 65 cases of illegal detention in Orletti Motors against five former Argentine officers. In June 2011 they were found guilty, their sentences ranged from 20 years to life in prison.
The evidence presented included records from the Archive of Terror, discovered in Paraguay in 1992, records from the archives of the Argentine Secretariat of Intelligence, the Intelligence Department from Buenos Aires, and U.S. declassified records. Carlos Osorio, from the National Security Archive testified about the declassified records and the Archive of Terror.
In the sentence, the court established that this documentation provided important evidence about the political context when the crimes were committed, and they also served to provided a better picture about the intelligence apparatus and how it functioned. It also served to corroborate testimonies.
The court decision also describes each of the 65 cases of illegal detention. Fifty-six of the cases described include references to documents provided by the National Security Archive and/or Osorio's testimony. The names of 38 of the victims appear in declassified documents.
The court decision is available here: http://www.cij.gov.ar/adj/pdfs/ADJ-0.304806001306942789.pdf (in Spanish).
2. Diario Militar
This is the case of the Guatemalan military logbook that was made public by the National Security Archive in May 1999 (see press release here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB15/press.html). A description of the logbook is available here: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/guatemala/logbook/index.htm.
On November 15, 2005 a group of relatives of 28 victims listed in the Diario Militar filed a complaint at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), denouncing the lack of action by the Guatemalan government to investigate what is documented in the Diario Militar. In October 2010 the IACHR released a report, which is available here: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/decisions/court/12.590Eng.pdf.
In the report, the commission concluded that the government of Guatemala violated 13 articles from the American Convention on Human Rights. It included failing to respect the right to access to information. The report also stated that the authenticity of the document was proven. Kate Doyle provided expert testimony on this regard.
In February 2011 the case was sent to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
On April 25, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights hold a hearing on the case (see http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB378/).
If anyone is interested in seeing some of the Archive of Terror documents that Joel references, here are some of them available with contextual information in English and Spanish. A portion of the archive has been digitized and is accessible online here.
Perhaps this is an obvious point, but I think that one can't overemphasize the important role that the records of human rights organizations have in documenting the extent of human rights violations in a given context. Indeed, as is the case in El Salvador and, up until recently, Guatemala, they are often the ONLY (accessible) record that exists that attests to the brutality of a repressive regime and are invaluable to many of the processes that Grace outlined. Although it is true that many of these organizations are often focused primarily advocacy, there is, I believe, an interesting simultaneity that occured in El Salvador/Central America whereas people were conscious of the need to document in order to contradict efforts to silence the general population and to occlude the vicious nature of the government's actions.
Grace very nicely sums up the importance of archives in promoting human rights. I think she places the role of an archive in the proper context--as a supporting mechanism for all other forms of human rights redress.
However, archiving itself is not a passive act. Selection and preservation of documentation is a conscious and deliberative set of activities, undertaken with a specific purpose in mind. Archivists are “shapers of historical memory,” a mission that closely coincides with human rights advocacy. I was reminded of a useful post on the WITNESS blog:
Of course, the ultimate uses of documentation can be difficult to predict. For human rights organizations, the collection and use of documentary evidence is highly dependent on the mission of the organization and purposes for which it was collected. The intended uses often determine how data is collected and managed, but not all possible uses can be anticipated at the point when evidence is created or acquired. The Guatemalan police archives, for instance, were not created with social justice in mind.
A valid question is, of course, at what point is a collection of documentation considered an "archive"? For human rights groups, it is important for advocates to consider the long-term implications at the outset of any documentation process or campaign. Use of material for advocacy purposes may be a relatively short-term commitment. However, long periods of time—sometimes decades—elapse between the creation of documentation and the investigation of events and the prosecution of perpetrators. In these scenarios, sound archiving practices are key to the survival and integrity of evidence.
All of the preceding comments are excellent. Building on the idea that uses for such information are not always known in advance, it seems worth noting that human rights archives' role in documenting the truth of what happened in a bad setting is itself a laudable and sufficient end, apart from advocacy. Such information can also be used to study a given history and drive new insights into important phenomena that are not currently well understood. For example, using civilians' self-defense groups to help combat an insurgency is an important topic in counter-insurgency policy. In some settings in Latin America, to name one region, these have gone terribly awry. But in Peru, they accomplished a great deal of good in the internal war against Sendero Luminoso and MRTA, despite very serious failures. Archives from different places and circumstances could form a good starting point for comparative research to shed light on this very important policy issue - why do self-defense forces work well in some places and disasterously in others? I'm sure others could think of many additional topics or thorny problems where accurate archival information on human rights violations could serve as an excellent input into critical research. So it seems to me that it is also important to keep sight of Learning/Understanding as an important objective of HR archives. Peace Thru Understanding!
James poses a very important question on when an NGO documentation becomes a little more than "just" (and sometimes "just" is everything, I agree with Mario) a collection of documents. How could we ensure that such collections in our custody outlive the initial purpose they were created for: advocacy, fact-finding, forensic analysis, outreach, etc.? Their preservation, selection and digitization are fundamental. Nevertheless, I think we have an obligation to find innovative ways to give access to these records and offer the tools and possibilities for the users to meaningfully analyze, combine, or reuse these records and to complement existing or come up with new interpretations of human rights violations.
For example, by organizing and publicly displaying authentic documents (witness testimonies, forensic reports, maps, archive footage, transcripts of trials, photographs, etc.) pertaining to a mass atrocity in a carefully designed exhibition, we have good chances to create lasting impact because our visitors will better understand the heinous architecture of such acts, the helplessness of victims or motivation of perpetrators, etc. Or, if you decide to publicly replay (in real time for a week) the archived audio recording of a trial from fifty years ago, where a martyr freedom fighter was unjustly sentenced to death and eventualy executed, you manage to create a common place for public memory and the participants will undoubtedly learn a lot about how an oppressive regime worked.
We have come to a point when we decided to reprocess or reevaluate our collections in the light the above, and even to start to collect citizen documentation on the same human rights violations or historical events to enhance the long term use of our collections and allow for the creation of alternative narratives.
I'm also concerned about the collections of human rights documentation created by grassroots activists that are not in anyone's custody, or rather, are in the custody of commercial entities such as Facebook or YouTube. The documents are created in or otherwise live exclusively in these proprietary platforms. We have heard from activists in the Middle East, for example, who are recording abuses with their cel phones, uploading to YouTube, and then deleting the footage from their phones for their own safety.
How are we going to ensure the preservation and long-term accessibility of these kinds of records? Who is in a position to do so?
I think you have raised an incredibly important point here.
New Tactics has an example of the collaboration between the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and Yale University to archive records regarding the Khmer Rouge genocide in a "Family Tracing File System" which allows survivors to seek information about their family members. Initial records were preserved in Cambodia with a back-up system at Yale University. To address your point - about who preserves information for the long-term accessibility and strategic uses of the information, DC-Cam's experience can provide insights into the hazards and dangers. In a chronology timeline beginning in 1994 - almost tweny years after the genocide, as the Tribunal was becoming a reality, DC-Cam states that they needed to take steps to secure their archive.
In August 13, 2003, Thousands of documents alleging Khmer Rouge-perpetrated atrocities are dispatched to the United States, Britain and France, after a series of security threats. DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang says 70 percent of the evidence is now safely secured in those countries. (AFP, August 13, 2003)
Today's commercial platforms give a false sense of security and permanence. Companies are bought and sold (e.g., Kodak bought by Shutterfly), governments demand information (e.g., google in China), the question of what happens to information that could be critical for such long term goals as the use of DC-Cam's archive in the prosecution of those who perpetrated the genocide in Cambodia, is a critical question in the arena of human rights.
I noticed a post in the other dialogue thread regarding how archives can be used which also referenced DC-Cam (The Importance of Archival Description and Reference)
Do others have examples of how archives have been shared, stored and protected (in the past and currently)? I also look forward to hearing how such information has been used for a variety of purposes?
Thanks for raising this point, Yvonne. As you note, most individuals and even organizations have turned to "free" commercial services to post their content. However, YouTube is not an archive. It is a "user service." Their technology is designed primarily to host and expose content, rather than serve as a permanent container for media. The rate of disappearance, for instance, of Iranian protest or Arab Spring videos is alarming.
Services exist to enable users to capture and preserve content from sites such as YouTube (Archive-It, NextPoint are but two), but these are expensive to maintain, may suffer technological shortcomings, and require an active approach to selection, preservation, and description.
And, where such preservation is happening, institutions are often left with grabbing the derivative files, rather than the original source content. YouTube “normalizes” video formats to accommodate its technology, and embedded metadata about the producers and circumstances of production are usually stripped out.
This is where collaboration with human rights organizations to archive content is critical. WITNESS, University of Texas HRDI are engaging in important work in preserving source content. However, the increasing trend of user-generated content means much is still falling through the cracks. A number of types of organizations must work in tandem to ensure that this data is maintained for future uses.
Thank you, James, for clarifying the weaknesses of capturing human rights content using "user services" versus archiving tools. It's good to hear there are groups like WITNESS and HRDI to help human rights groups archive their content...but how can we ensure that human rights group know that places like WITNESS and HRDI exist to help them? What kinds of approaches to these and other archival groups use to reach out to the human rights groups on the ground?
The reality is that much more in the way of robust, widespread, scalable infrstructure and resources are needed to even begin to address the issues of HR groups or activists who are needing help. HRDI and WITNESS partnerships are a great model, but not nearly enough.
Right now at WITNESS we are focused on how to develop some tools, guidelines and best practices that will address the immediate and interim media management needs of HRNGOs (primarily regarding digital audiovisual content), recognizing that most will never have the wherewithal for long-term archiving. There are huge challenges, some of which have been mentioned: lack of connectivity and infrastructure, and the fact that feasible solutions are always dependent on the goals and available resources of the particular group. (True archiving is complex, labor- and technology-dependent, and expensive.) But without such interventions the documentation won't survive to get to an archive.
The other thing that's essential is more repositories in a postion to collect and preserve these materials: these need to be non-governmental, able to ensure security, and regionally-based, not just in the US or global north.
<p>Thanks, James, for so clearly highlighting the issues related to preserving grassroots documentation shared on services such as YouTube.</p><p>As you mention, some institutions are involved in preserving this content but may be limited to collecting derivative files and only minimal descriptive and source information. By the time we are downloading from YouTube, in many ways we are too late. To ensure the integrity and reliability of the records, we need to somehow incorporate preservation activities earlier in the record lifecycle, i.e. at the points of creation and uploading.</p><p>At WITNESS, we've attempted to partially address this problem by creating educational resources for activists on how to best film for evidential and storytelling purposes, how to note descriptive and source metadata, how to organize and store video files, etc. These resources are always being developed and improved, and we learn a lot from our grassroots partners and from folks like you through dialogues like this (so thank you everyone!).</p><p>The main challenges I've encountered when developing these materials are how to best communicate the value of archiving and preservation and why steps need to be taken early on; coming up with simple but effective methods that can be easily incorporated by activists who are busy, under-resourced, and sometimes in unsafe situations; and developing resources that are specific enough to be useful but general enough that they can be shared widely with activists in varied human rights contexts.</p>
Great points, James and Yvonne. I would also argue that, in some instances, even when materials have made it to the archive, it is too late, particularly to capture robust descriptive metadata that will provide important context to the materials. The HRDI has found that a post-custodial archival model complements an active lifecycle management model; we learn from our partners how they create, store, and use their materials and then work to build metadata and preservation practices into their existing workflows. Sometimes these practices can be relatively simple, such as establishing a consistent file-naming system that will help individuals/organizations easily organize and retrieve their files. Sometimes establishing more archivally minded practices requires more time invested by the organization up front, but can save them time/energy later on. We have found that If the practices are framed as steps they can take to make even their more immediate work easier/effective, they are less resistant to adopting the new practices.
I definitley agree James, and I certainly didn't mean to connote that the records of human rights organizations could be construed as "archives" avant la lettre.
But moreover, I am intrigued by this question of the Guatemalan police archives, and both the demonstrated, and I would contend manic, need of repressive regimes and their agents to document their every move, their every victim, and the utlimate use of these archives to contest the very actions documented. Certainly this is evident in any number of historical and national contexts (Nazis, Khmer Rouge, etc.), but to what end? A desire to reflect the monumentality/power of an individual/group of individuals? A morbid tallying of the decimination of one's enemies?
Indeed, it seems to me that there is this prevailing conceit whereas the regime in power never wonders if this documentation will come back to haunt them because they never imagine that they'll ever be out of power. Curious.
And subsequently, since the records of the police, government, etc. were never meant to see the light of day, what sorts of redress do people have when they need access to them for reasons of reconciliation, etc.?
Archiving information is a necessary step to acknowledge a violation. The way the information has been received and who did get the information is another issue.
In countries where people are illiterate, collecting information may be very difficult especially if we take into account the pressure of society to keep silent.
When information are available, how can we protect them for being destroyed? How can we use them effectivelybefore a government that does not want to take the step forward to find and judge the violators?
I believe that not only human rights violations should be archived but also the local authorities's actions after being informed. A government is responsible for its citizens ' security.
You bring up two very interesting points. The first, is this question of illiteracy and the collecting of information, which immediately calls to mind the issue of access and use of materials (if you can't read it and decipher what is in a document, how can you get to it and use it effectively against those who have violated your rights) and the importance of oral history as documentation. Suffice it to say that in El Salvador, oral testimony is at the cornerstone of human rights documentation (HRNGO's, truth commissioni) and continues to be an effective tool in the process of remembering and commemorating the civil war, legal restitution and the healing process. The sharing of stories at gatherings throughout the country has been key to allowing those who cannot read or write to contribute to the historcial narrative of the conflict. Therefore, not limiting the history making process to those that retain the power of texutality.
Secondly, on the question of what can we do to protect information from being destroyed, even when it is available, I must say that I find myself wondering the same thing and ask what others involved in this dialogue have to say. Even in the United States, where there are legal barriers to the destruction of, for example, governmental documents, materials are lost due to political pressure, conflict, etc. What recourse then do people have in nations where there are no laws legislating the retention or management of governmental documents? When the existence of materials can be obfuscated, denied or kept secret? Indeed, how can a people ask for evidence of crimes committed by the state, for example, if they never knew that this evidence existed? (and here, I'm thinking of covert operations whose activities, or evidence thereof, are never supposed to come to light). Again, here I think of El Salvador and the silence that exists around governmental records from the period of the civil war. One assumes that they exist/existed at one time, but it's difficult to ascertain given the utter lack of access and/or evidence that they did.
Hi Mario and Kadida,
One way to protect information from being destroyed is to use a service/tool like Martus to securely back up the data to an off-site server. In the case of Martus, they have secure servers in Canada and Hungary. If the servers are confiscated, no one can read the content because the keys to access the content are stored separately (by each user). Collin, from Benetech, can provide more clarification on this - but I can say it is a fascinating tool and has been built to address issues of security for sensitive human rights data. Collin mentioned this tool already in another thread.
The secure Martus server in Hungary is at OSA.To get an account to the server, email to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can search the public bulletins hosted on this server here.
The provision of secure offsite mirroring services such as the Martus server is incredibly valuable but I have had a few conversations with local NGOs here in Southern Africa (the most recent just a few weeks ago with an NGO offering psychosocial services to ex-combatants) where the level of suspicion about these services (either from the NGO, or from the communities they serve) and what might happen to their data was noteworthy. In a context where scepticism of the intentions of organisations from the North is high, cultures of secrecy run deep (often by necessity) and understanding of technology, of *how* such services are secured, there is a need to think carefully about how to explain / demonstrate such services where trust is a rare commodity. Perhaps an answer here is about verifiable endorsement from other grassroots organisations from the South? And of course there are also the concerns raised about the costs / security of actually getting the data onto these servers... Forgive the anecdotal tone but it has been a recurring theme in my conversations in recent years...
Thanks Kristin and Csaba! I did see the references to Martus in previous threads and am intrigued by its capacities for HRNGOs.
Moreover, though, I was speaking to the issue of the destruction of materials outside the digital realm whose existence is kept/obscured from the general public, particularly in the case of documents chronicling the activites of covert operations (death squads, etc.) supported and/or instigated by repressive governments. Indeed, if an activity is deemed as secret, who is to know whether or not there was paper trail created, and/or if it was destroyed before anyone could find out or do anyting to prevent it. Of course, examples abound of instances where copious documentation was created (Stasi, Guatemalan Police archives, etc.) where materials survived through benign neglect. But in cases such as El Salvador, where there has been scant access/"accidental" discovery of documents, it's hard to know if key materials have survived the end of the conflict, even with blanket amnesties providing protection from prosecution for human rights violations; and therefore providing less of an incentive for destroying potentially incriminating evidence.
I hope that makes some sense. :-)
As Colin himself has flagged in the post that Kristin has linked to, human rights data collection, archival and transmission is not as simple as advocating a single platform, product or tool. It depends on, inter alia, overarching political context, actors involved, the nature of the information being gathered, from whom, under what conditions and for what purpose. The blind use of a particular tool, because it is "recommended" by vendor or donor can and often does result in the most undesirable of circumstances for HR activists and advocates. And even within a repressive regime, one can document HR violations in a manner that doesn't require the storage of sensitive material out of the country.
The Citizen’s Commission: Expulsion of the Northern Muslims by the LTTE in October 1990 from Sri Lanka is a cogent example of this, and in an on-going stage, they are now documenting (through digitisation) photographs from the families who were evicted. I helped with the information archival for this project, incl. the simplest of suggestions - to digitise hours of audio interviews stored on micro-tapes. A commissioner this year told me that if that hadn't been done, and the suggestion made, severe flooding that affected Colombo around a year ago would have resulted in the loss of the entire audio archive of testimonies from the field, because the office the tapes were stored in went under water. The tapes are now useless, but the invaluable digital records are safe. There was no need to transmit this information out of the country - the mere digitisation, off-site storage and subsequent upload to a website (backend runs Wordpress) was enough to create a record of this awful event for posterity.
Great example, Sanjana! Thanks for sharing this. I completely agree with you that sometimes you just need a tool that is easy for users to use and easy to organize content (a content management system, for example). You don't always need to send information to servers out of the country.
Great point - how do you (and others in this dialogue) recommend that human rights practitioners research the right tool for their archiving needs? Are there websites that layout all the options, pros/cons, guides, etc? Like a clearing house of archiving tools? Or, is there different advice that you give human rights practitioners when they are working on figuring out the right tool? When practitioners receive recommendations from vendors, donors and others - how can they research the validity of those recommendations?
Here in the U.S, we believe that the way they teach the Civil Rights Movement in schools and present it on TV seriously distorts the history that we lived and created. One of the main reasons we started building the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website (www.crmvet.org) was our understanding that the stories of the elders shape the thoughts and assumptions and core beliefs of those who come after.
Today, from what you see in the mass media and read in textbooks and websites, you would think that the Freedom Movement only existed in a few states of the deep South, — but that is not so. The Freedom Movement lived and fought in every state and every city of America, North, South, East, and West.
The establishment tries to imply that it was only about racial equality in certain social civil and voting rights. But to us it was about much more than just a few narrowly-defined civil rights. The essence of the Freedom Movement was first to defy, and then to overthrow, a century of systemic racial oppression and exploitation across all aspects of society. At heart, the Freedom Movement was a demand for social and political equality, an end to economic injustice, and a fair share of political power for Blacks and other non-whites. Though the Freedom Movement failed to achieve all of these goals, it did decisively and permanently end the "Jim Crow" system of legally-enforced social inequality through segregation. And by winning voting rights for all non-whites it obliterated the main legal mechanism used to restrict American racial minorities to a form of second-class citizenship.
We also object to the way in which the Civil Rights Movement is often presented as an example of the "great leader" theory of history (all King, all the time). For us, the heart and soul of our website is emphasizing the central role played by ordinary people transforming their lives through extraordinary courage. The Civil Rights Movement was above all a mass peoples' movement — people coming together to change their lives for themselves. But all too often that central fact has been quietly dropped out of the official history in favor of a "benevolent" court ruling, a few charismatic leaders, a handful of famous protests in a few well-known places, some tragic martyrs, and the gracious largess of magnanimous legislators.
So we are building our website archive so that there is at least one place where those who were there can tell it like it was in our own words, uninterpreted by academics, pundits, politicians, and media moguls.
It's not about human rights archiving per se, but the central thesis resonates with the discussion here.
Read the full article on Ars Technica here.
It's an interesting passage to end the article with, since it begins with a mention of Jason Scott, whose claim to fame is rescuing about-to-be-deleted websites and large data sets (like geocities, google video, among others). While I believe wholeheartedly in the archival mission, I question whether archivists, librarians, and records-managers on their own are at all adequate to this task. The mainstream of the profession has in fact often ignored many, many types and sources of records as not "important;" and often it has been the individual collector or passionate amateur who has had the prescience to ensure the survival of what institutions deemed ephemera (film & TV as an obvious example). Decisions about archives' value and importance are to some degree subjective, contested, fluid, and should include the voices, values and communities that created them.
Beyond this, though, without better interventions on the part of record-creators, we really do face a potential digital dark age. Paper could survive quite accidentally for a relatively long time, but media have become progressivley short-lived. Folks may be familiar with the Personal Digital Archiving project of the Library of Congress. The idea is to provide some basic resources and "archival literacy" for individuals own personal archives or data. We hope to help do this on the HR front, because we - archives collectively - can't do it all.