How have archives played a critical role in promoting or defending human rights?

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How have archives played a critical role in promoting or defending human rights?

This discussion thread is meant to collect and share stories about the ways that human rights practitioners have used archiving in their work, and the ways that archivists have applied their skills to human rights projects.

Share some examples of where/how archives have played a critical role in promoting or defending human rights by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

B'Tselem's video archive

The Video Department has an extensive and unique video archive that is available to the public. The archive contains thousands of hours of raw material, testimonies, and footage from various places in the Occupied Territories, and is used by filmmakers, media people, academics, students, and any person who wants to learn the reality of life under occupation.

B'Tselem has a huge video archive. containing 4000 hours (and counting) of video footage from the occupied territories. Using 200 cameras we have given our volunteers, they film and send us the footage. We then store the footage in our servers, and put it in the archive. The archive is open to the  public and anyone can come and watch and even use our archive for their own purposes. We also send our material to media, and many journalists come and view the footage in our offices, using our archive. 

The archive functions like a memory, providing us with ways to look at the present and remember the past. Sometimes what you see in the media is nearly half the story - through the archive we find the beginning, the middle, and even the end of every story. 

Even the security forces such as the army and police use our archive in their investigations, as well as (of course) our data coordination team and research department. 

More about B'Tselem Center

I looked at B’Tselem website, very interesting center, I would even say essential to promote human rights culture in Israel! I wonder :

  • Do you think that archives you collect and preserve could be used for advocacy, like in court, criminal trial or in a truth commission? Could your archives could be used as evidence?
  • What are your position and relation with israeli and palestinian authorithies?
  • Do you have criterias to select the video archives ? do you have "accession policy"? (direct translation of "politique d'acquisition" , I am not sure of the phrase sorry)

 Thank you for your precisions

Celine Fouga

Consultant in Documentation

Great African Lakes Region


Hello Celine,

We are using the media archive for advocacy, and also for evidence. There were incidents where our material was used in court, and actually helped charging those responsible.

We work with the Israeli authorities and provide them with everything they need, when they need it. The Palestinian authorities don't use us as much, but when they need something - we are there.

We don't put personal material in the archive, however, everything that is related to human rights is inserted. There are no criterias.

metadata for video archive

How do you manage all of the data in the archive? I went to your site, and there is so much interesting information there. B'Tselem's approach seems quite similar to the approach that some of our partners in Burma are using - capturing raw information about human rights violations as they happen and making sure the information is preserved. (I work for the International Center for Transitional Justice - ICTJ - and our partners are collecting interviews mostly, not video so much.) The Burmese groups have developed a set of keywords and try to identify geographic locations in a systematic way (some places have three names, so this can be challenging). I suspect that coding video footage might be particularly difficult, especially when you are collecting information from lots of different sources. However, I did search a few terms, e.g. Hebron, torture, killing, and the site found several videos. However, I couldn't tell how the videos were tagged or coded. Can you explain this process a bit? Thanks!

Patrick Pierce 

The Importance of Archival Description and Reference

Archivists can have a significant impact on holding the perpetrators of human rights violations legally and historically accountable through virtually every archival function. Most of the literature has focused on the importance of appraisal and preservation in human rights archival collecting efforts, and there is no doubt that archival decisions about what is of ongoing enduring value are critically important in providing legal evidence. But I also wanted to call attention to the importance of archival description in human rights archiving. Here is a blog post I wrote a while back for Witness that discusses the importance of how archivists describe records documenting human rights violations in making the case for specific crimes to be prosecuted. In the example I use, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) described records related to Khmer Rouge victims by the ethnic identity of the victims in order to make a legal case for genocide charges, that is, in order to argue that certain ethnic and religious minority groups were targeted. I argue that archival description has played a huge role in bringing about genocide charges on the three top Khmer Rouge leaders currently on trial. (The question of whether or not the current tribunal in Cambodia is impartial and credible is another issue entirely, and perhaps one that is beyond the scope of archival power.)

I also want to bring up the importance of archival reference in the human rights arena. How archivists make records available to the family members of victims is extremely important. In Cambodia, the Documentation Center of Cambodia conducts major outreach efforts through public programming in rural areas and the distribution of publications that inform Cambodians that evidence of the deaths of their loved ones may still exist. It is crucial that access to the information in these records is provided in a culturally sensitive manner that respects the grieving process.

Does anyone have any other ideas about how other archival functions can be deployed in support of human rights?

Archival descriptions and standardized human rights index terms

Thanks, Michelle, for providing these thoughts and examples.  I am curious to learn more about "archival description" and "archival reference".  I am sure that many of the resource practitioners are familiar with these terms, but there are also many of us that are learning about archiving work for the first time! :)

Regarding "archiving description" I am wondering if there is something more to this than just categorizing the information being collected.  Is it more nuanced than this?

The blog entry that you linked to is really interesting.  When DC-Cam was working on determining how to describe/categorize the information/testimonials/events being collected, did they consider using the HURIDOCS Micro-Thesauri as a starting point for index terms? There is even a micro-thesaurus on ethnic groups, which theoretically could have been used as a starting point for the DC-Cam project.  Do you know if these index term standards were considered or used?

The bigger question that I am also curious about is how often archiving projects use standard index terms across their projects.  Is using standard index terms (like the HURIDOCS Micro-Thesauri) a best practice in the archiving field?  What would be the benefit of standardizing these index terms?

Archival descriptions and standardized human rights index terms

hi Kristin.  There are a number of facets to description; standardized terminology - thesauri, vocabularies, etc - are one.  When we began building our thesaurus of subject terms back in 2003 we drew on the HURIDOCS lists and a few others, but we had to craft our own because we needed to describe audiovisual content.  We also made some specific word choices that reflected US usage as opposed to say UK usage.  Others' collections might be more legal in nature and would need a different set of terms.  You can access our list here BTW:

Standards are important and tremendously useful - but my own view is that one set of categories or descriptors will never fit all - eg a huge university collection about HR generally vs. a small collection of documents about the Sierra Leone civil war will have different needs.

And yes, there is much more to description; it also has to incoporate context, meaning, and factuality. eg, Who created this video, why did they create it, was consent obtained? Are there security or safety issues, sensitivities which might limit or condition access? What other documents, videos, information do we need to fully make sense of it?   And the basic who, what, where and when are quite important for corroboration and authentication. 

I think Tessa is actually working on collecting HR thesauri at the moment...?


I think Tessa is actually

gracelile wrote:

I think Tessa is actually working on collecting HR thesauri at the moment...?

Yes, I am!  I'll circulate to the Human Rights and Archives listserve when finished (


More on archival description

Great points, Kristin. I agree with Grace that while standards are useful, there will never be a standardized vocabulary that can be applied to all human rights materials and collections. The Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) has been grappling with this issue as we work with a very diverse corpus of materials that range from video oral testimonies, archived websites to legal documents and photographs. In the beginning we looked at different human rights related vocabularies (i.e. Shoah Foundation Thesaurus, WITNESS keywords, Amnesty International keywords, Thesaurus of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and tried to design a controlled vocabulary that would apply to our varied format and genre types at a very granular level (i.e. having very specific index terms for oral histories similar to the Shoah Foundation thesaurus as well as broader keywords for items such as photographs and reports), but soon learned that such a vocabulary would be too unwieldy and thus, not very useful.

Additionally, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative bases its work on a post-custodial archival model that assumes our partners, the record creators/gatherers, are owners and experts in their own records. Since the majority of our archival materials come from our partner organizations who have their own local needs and priorities, the HRDI believes it is important, indeed ethical, to allow for the flexibility of description that will best serve our partners' work. Imposing a single vocabulary would be problematic on our part as we would be usurping some of their control over their own material (not to mention impossible as we would never have the resources to translate such a vocabulary into the many languages of our partner organizations). At the HRDI, we see our role as being consultants and collaborators with professional expertise in archives; we work with our partners to find out their information needs and find ways to meet these needs that are based on archival principles and best practices and also fit into our partners' existing workflows. 

Thesauri and access

I consider myself trained as an archivist largely for public sector roles, so I hold descriptive standards and tools close to the work I do.  But I do agree with Grace and T-Kay on the unlikelihood of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to standardizing the vocabulary of HR terms.  Although thesauri have been created and are being used in other organizations (as listed in the above entries), I can easily how such a tool made to apply to the collections held by the HRDI can easily become “too unwieldy and thus, not very useful”.  The holdings of each collection vary not just in format, as T-Kay as pointed out, but in context – based on what I see under HDRI’s Current Projects.  This reminds me of a project I did cataloguing, classifying and describing objects and realia of the G8 Research Collection at the University of Toronto, I experienced a similar challenge of dealing with various media and formats.  I was working with one collection and creating a thesaurus to control the vocabulary was equally challenging as I was also dealing with objects from different countries and thus had to tackle the dilemma of having a thesaurus flexible enough to include terms in different languages.  In similar fashion to the HRDI, I took a [quasi]post-custodial approach in the case of controlling the vocabulary, by employing the “creators” and original collectors of the collection in defining the terms in a way that would be most meaningful for researchers/users.  (I use the term creators loosely in that last sentence as the collection is not comprised wholly of historical records as much as objects, but that’s another story).

Ultimately the goals of descriptive standards and tools like finding aids or thesauri of terms are to provide access to the material.  Now forgive the sophomoric question as the HDRI is a terrific resource online and I am excited by projects that use the post-custodial approach.  But I’m still curious to hear more about the different courses of action the HDRI and other organizations take to overcome issues of access and retrieval if thesauri prove not to be very useful tools in the case of human rights material.

Metadata guidelines for video and audio

Hi Aileen. Your question is not sophomoric at all; quite the contrary and I'm glad you're pushing me to give a more direct answer about the metadata practices that the HRDI does implement.

We have developed our own local vocabulary that serves more as subject headings than index terms. The thesaurus scope includes types of human rights violations, the contexts in which they occur as well as acts of agency in response to human rights violations. It's definitely a work in progress and we do not yet have it publically available. (We are looking for a vocabulary management tool that would allow web-based, read-only access to the vocabulary and each term's scope notes. We were using Tema Tres for awhile but weren't super happy with the search function.) We have started applying the terms to our archived human rights website collection, which you can see here. Since it would be an unrealistic amount of work to develop a controlled vocabulary of index terms for each partner collection's, we work with them to standardize their descriptive practices to the extent possible (i.e. format/structure of abstracts, index terms for oral histories). 

UT's Head Librarian for Digital Access Services (Amy Rushing) has worked with the HRDI to develop Metadata Guidelines for Video and METS profile that serve as a blueprint for the type of metadata we ask our partners to collect in conjunction with their archival records. The Guidelines themselves are far too technical to hand to our partners as is, but can be useful for trained archivists working with human rights documentation creators/collectors. You can see some of the descriptive metadata guidelines in action with our collections here.  

We have also developed Metadata Guidelines for Audio and accompanying METS profile.

Here is a blog entry that Amy wrote to discuss the development of these metadata tools:

Both Video and Audio METS profiles have been registered with the Library of Congress. 


The Society of American Archivists defines description as:

"n. ~ 1. The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work's identification, management, and understanding. – 2. The product of such a process." 

However, scholars like Elizabeth Yakel have proposed the term "archival representation" instead to denote anything an archivist does to represent the content and context of records in a condensed way so that users can access them. This has traditionally meant the creation of a finding aid to represent a collection, but also certainly includes entering metadata about a record into a database.

My very favorite article on archival description is by Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, "Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings" Archival Science 2 (2002): 263-285. In it, Duff and Harris show just how important archivists' description choices are and advocate that we use these powerful choices for ethical action. I highly recommend it!


Benfits of standardized vocabulary: translation and crowd source

Thanks for the definitions, Michelle!  I think I found a downloadable version of the article you referenced above. Thanks for sharing this!

I appreciate everyone's comments above about best practices for using standardized vocabularies versus customized description.  This is such an interesting topic to me.  I find the HURIDOCS Micro-Thesauri useful because each term has a distinct code, and each term is translated into French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portugese, and Bhasa Indonesian. 

Here at New Tactics, I am considering using the HURIDOCS Rights Typology, potentially making the list smaller, and using it to help our website users to find material related to their human rights issue-area.  We are building an Arabic version of the website, so we know we want to have our vocabulary in multiple languages.  This saves us the time of identifying those terms AND translating.  This story isn't specifically about archiving...but I can image a situation in which similar criteria exist (languages, lack of expertise in developing vocabularies, etc). Furthermore, these terms have been collected by many human rights workers around the world so I already know that the list is quite comprehensive.  In some cases, too comprehensive, and in others, it just doesn't fit.  But it's a good place to start to begin exploring what works and what doesn't work. 

Educating new archivists

While not necesary an archival function, I think the topic of archival education becomes very important. And in this context I mean providing education/training to people responsible for the preservation/organization of human rights archives and archives of repression. One example of this is the archives of the Guatemalan National Police (AHPN). After its discovery, it received important international collaboration from archivists, and this helped on the preparation of a core of new Guatemalan archivists working with the AHPN. From a conversation with the director of the AHPN, this is one of the areas he identified as critical for the sustainability of the archive. 

educational resources

<p>I agree, this is an emerging issue for us as we are working more and more with activists whose video documentation we are not collecting. We would like to provide these activists with training/tools so that they can archive their own materials or work with a more local archive institution. Are there training resources out there that could be used (or adapted) to this context?</p>

Archiving “in the midst”

I agree archival education is a critical issue. Something that needs to be connected more clearly in the human rights literature is the continuum between documentation and long-term preservation of content. Organizations and advocates need to consider at the outset how evidence will be used, and take measures to accommodate these needs up front, rather than later on.

CRL recently conducted an assessment of how human rights organizations are dealing with the challenges of collecting electronic documentation of human rights (materials that are born-digital—cell phone videos, twitter tweets, and so on—as well as digitized documents). In the assessment of HROs for this study, we could find no standard practice of documentation to ensure the integrity and durability of electronic evidence. [more on this subject will be posted in "challenges"].


I absolutely agree. The people who do the archiving work should be trained so that they follow international rules and make the information easily searchable.

Archives + Pedagogy

For the folks working in education, broadly speaking (from popular education to higher education), how do you incorporate human rights archival material into your teaching and/or what resources have you found useful to promote (ethical) use of human rights archival material? How can archivists educate educators on how to engage with human rights archival material?

An archives student at the University of Texas created the Tutoral for Archival Research on Women's Human Rights which has been a useful starting point for the Human Rights Documentation Initiative to begin educating faculty and students on how to work with archives generally and human rights archives more specifically. Currently, we're working with faculty on explore how to integrate human rights primary sources into undergraduate curriculum. I would love to hear more about archivists' experience doing this sort of instruction - what have been learning outcomes and teaching strategies? 


Social Justice Approach to Archival Education

I teach my introduction to archives class from what I call a social justice perspective-- that is, I stress issues of power and marginalization in archives, use many examples from records documenting human rights abuse, and encourage my students to approach memory keeping practices from a culturally pluralist perspective. I try to infuse the social justice/ human rights approach in virtually every aspect of the introductory class; we don't just talk about ethics on the last day of class, but from the first day forward.

Here's a specific example: on the day we talk about digitization, I teach them not only the best practices for digitization in the field, but also about the ethical issues surrounding making human rights records digitally available online. I ask the students to read the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the Orentlicher Principles and actually use websites from several of UT-Austin's HRDI partners, break the students up into small groups, and ask them to evaluate how the websites balance issues such as accountability, access to information, privacy, audience, custody, and the politics of international partnerships, etc. This discussion was then reinforced later in the semester, when we talked about new media records and proprietary formats and I used the YouTube videos of UC-Davis police pepper spraying student protestors as an example.

Another example: the day we talk about provenance, I not only introduce them to the concept of provenance and ownership as it has been conceived in traditionally Western archival theory and practice, but also about how this a very culturally rooted notion. I explain how many indigenous philosophies construct ownership and provenance in very different ways and how this might impact decisions about who should have custody of and access to records. I talk about how we can expand provenance to include the subjects of records and their descendents. I use the Mukurtu project as an example in which communities claim provenance of records, rather than solely tracing provenance back to individual creators.

And when we talk about access, we talk about the Native American Protocols and how we can question that generalization that more access is always best. And when we talk about description, I show them an example of a finding aid that simply ignores the rare letter from a working class woman in the collection. So there are ways to incorporate human rights issues in every archival lesson. I would be happy to share my lecture notes, syllabus, and lesson plans with anyone who is interested.

I am also very interested in the issue of archival educators doing outreach to human rights NGOS to teach them archival basics and to learn about their needs and challenges. Do any organizations out there currently link archival educators to human rights NGOs? Is this something the new chapter of Archivists Without Borders might be interested in doing?



Hi Michelle,

This is certainly something that AwB US envisions as part of its work. 

I also taught the introduction to archives class at Simmons, and have incorporated discussion about human rights issues. One example is when the topic was arrangement/description, we included a class discussion about the discovery of the police archives in Guatemala, and how fundamental archival work like arrangement/description has been a powerful tool not only for organizing and preserving the archives, but also for accountability mechanisms, including prosecutions.

- Joel



Hi Joel,

That is great to hear about AwB.  I would be very interested in doing this, so sign me up!



<p>Hi Michelle,</p><p>Your course sounds amazing. I have not taken any classes that specifically address human rights issues in archiving, and would be very interested in seeing your (and Joel's and Csaba's) syllabi or lecture notes if you are willing to share them!</p><p>I also took a quick look at Mukurtu... very cool. I'm curious if anyone has had experience using it, or with any other web-based CMS for presenting archive content (e.g. Omeka), and if you could share any tips, plus/minuses, etc.? We're exploring the idea of building a theme and/or plug-ins in Wordpress that would allow organizations to easily build a site to present media records with searchable/ browsable descriptions.</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

Related Archival Education Article

I also wanted to recommend an article (a bit of a manifesto really) on changing archival education to more accurately reflect social justice/ human rights/ pluralism concerns. It's called "Educating for the Archival Multiverse" and it was co-authored by about 25 international faculty members and doctoral students calling themselves the Pluralizing the Archival Curriculum Group and appears in the Spring/ Summer 2011 American Archivist 74. (Email me if you don't have access and are interested.) While not on human rights in archival education per se, human rights concerns are definitely brought to the forefront.

There is also some talk about rewriting archives curricula to reflect broad themes (like trust, representation, accountability) rather than specific functions (like arrangement & description, digitization, etc.) The rationale for the change would be, in part, to draw attention to memory-keeping themes across cultures. Certainly human rights concerns could be prioritized using ths approach. The Pluralizaing the Archival Curriculum Group meets every year at the Archival Education and Research Institute (July 2012 at UCLA), so stay tuned for more work on this front.

human rights archives in education

All incoming classes at the Central European University get an introduction to the archives during their orientation week. (This is the time when we usually find one or two motivated students to intern with us throughout the year.)

Our hybrid course Archives, Evidence and Human Rights is offered to the Human Rights Program of the Legal Studies Department (beginning with next year, it will be cross-listed with the History Department) and is based our collections on human rights violations and history of communism. It includes an introduction into the history and philosophy of preserving recorded memory, with an overview of the types and functions of modern human rights archives. We analyze the legal and ethical problems of using personal data and basic provisions of archival law. Problems of using archival sources as court evidence (and the analysis of such evidence), as well as the various aspects of making justice for past abuses are examined within the frame of case studies. We have a section on online research and resources, and a workshop involving primary archival sources, with lots of footage among them. At the end of the course, students have to submit a paper, which is largely based on research done in the archives.

In addition, there are several other classes at various departments which partly rely on our collections or have their classes at the archives, such as Transitional Justice and Gendered Memories of War and Political Violence.

But I would be really interested in how others particpants affiliated with universities position or promote their archives, collections across the campus, and how human rights records are further used in teaching.

Archival description - Brasil: Nunca Mais

A good example of how archival description (though derived from unlikely sources) assists with human rights is the case of Brasil: Nunca Mais.

This archive contains records of individuals tried in military courts between 1964 and 1979 during the military dictatorship in Brazil. The files, stored in the Superior Tribunal Militar records office, were checked out and copied in secret over the course of five years.

The mass of documentation (707 cases, over million pages plus annexes) defied easy use, and the project organizers set about creating an exhaustive index to the case files, providing details on every victim arrested, tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, and so on. In addition, the indexers listed important details such as the perpetrators of torture. In total the index described:

  • 1843 denunciations of torture
  • 242 sites of torture
  • 444 names of perpetrators
  • 17,420 victims

The index (“Projeto A”) serves as the archival description to the collection (preserved on microfilm and stored at my organization (Center for Research Libraries) for decades. Significantly, though, it provides a systematic, comprehensive record to identify not only information on affected individuals, but helps establish patterns of abuse (akin to modern methodologies employed by human rights groups today).

We’re happy to relate that the entire record of Brasil: Nunca Mais is being digitized by the Ministério Público Federal in Brazil, in cooperation with CRL and numerous other organizations. These will be available for public use later this year at the Brasil: Nunca Mais Digital site.

Government vs. NGO archives

I want to raise the issue here of the difference between government archives and ngo archives in societies undergoing transitional justice. Many archivists have previously advocated that records documenting human rights abuse belong in the custody of the successor government, but what happens when the transition to democracy is not yet complete and the current regime is repressive? What role do NGO archives have here, who should collect what, and what are the boundaries?

I would like to propose trust as the main factor here in determining the custody of records documenting human rights abuse, that is, the records belong in the custody of a repository that is most trustworthy in the eyes of survivors and victims’ family members. Of course, how to measure this trust is difficult.

I am currently working on an article that rethinks the concept of provenance in relation to records documenting human rights abuse and posits that the provenance of these records should be traced back not to their creators (the human rights abusers) but the community of survivors (who are often represented by survivor-led NGOs). I would be very interested in getting everyone’s feedback on the promises and limits of NGO archives vs. state archives in collecting human rights materials.

Would you be able to provide

Would you be able to provide some more examples? What comes to my mind immediately are the the archives of the ICTR and the archives taken by US forces from Iraq, but I'm sure there are others.  Thanks!


Sure! Let me clarify-- I am not talking about archives taken (legally or illegally) from their countries of origin, but rather records in NGO custody rather than state custody.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia is an NGO organization that collected Khmer Rouge materials from government and also private sources in the 1990s. The current regime in Cambodia has some complicated ties to/ politics with the memory of the Khmer Rouge (the prime minister is a former Khmer Rouge member who later defected to Vietnam) so an NGO is a more trustworthy steward than a government archives in this case, I would argue. (I know others disagree with me here.)

I also think that another example may be the South African History Archives, which is represented by Catherine Kennedy in this forum. Also, it seems many of the forum participants are from NGOs and not state archives, right?

government v. NGO records

Yes this is a big issue - we are seeing this bubble up particularly in the middle east, and it's not just NGOs but citizen documentation as well.  There are some ad hoc efforts to collect and manage but the bigger question is, who are the trusted independent entities with sufficient infrastructure to archive, manage, preserve documentation in a secure way in these various contexts?

Custody, repressive regimes and NGO archives

I would certainly concur that finding a locus of trustworthiness in transitional governments is always a dicey proposition, and that the so-called end of a repressive regime does not always guarantee that individuals complicit with acts of torture, forced disappearences, etc., will not again surface within the halls of government.

As is the case in Cambodia, in Central America, and here I'm thinking of El Salvador and, most recently, Honduras, individuals directly linked to former repressive regimes (who often held key posts) are once again being integrated into government, and beginning to influence policy in and around free speech, human rights, etc. Of course, in the case of El Salvador, these individuals never really went away thanks to blanket amnesties and the transfiguration of right-wing zealots into "legitimate" political parties. Indeed, up until recently, the right-wing ARENA  party (whose membership was made up of many officials from the former regime)continued to hold power in El Salvador. Therefore, what resources existed documenting human rights violations, the history of the civil war, etc. (which are held primarily by human rights organizations) could never be entrusted to the government for fear of reprisal, given that many of these records contained testimonials, people's names, etc.

Suffice it to say, the political situation in many Central American countries continues to be volatile. Again, although El Salvador currently has a left-wing President, there are some indications that ARENA is making a come back and therefore could trigger a return to more repressive tactics. And of course, many of us are aware of what happened/is happening in Honduras. Which all goes to say (and everyone must forgive my rambling tone :-) that there is little reason to have much confidence in the manueverings of government in El Salvador, etc. and, in turn, very little reason to entrust them with materials documenting human rights violations. The still off limits records of the government are another matter completely.

Documenting truth - ICTJ publication

Hi Tessa,

If you're not familiar with it, take a look at 'Documenting truth', an ICTJ publication  that draws on the experience of six local action groups / NGOs (including The Documentation Center of Cambodia mentioned by Michelle) 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) who worked together to try and establish and share best practices in human rights documentation and archival work…



Trust and the inalienability question

Your questions highlight the extent to which the archival principle of inalienability (that is, records generated by state or governmental institutions rightfully should be placed in the custody of state-operated or governmental archives) feels increasingly inadequate, irrelevant, unethical in transitional justice contexts (or even just a world where the nation state model is repeatedly failing?). It places the nation state’s right to custody of records above  citizens’ access to records, which is of course deeply problematic, particularly in contexts where attempts to hold perpetrators accountable are live, where there is not yet enabling access to information legislation in place, etc. Trust is central - if a state have demonstrated untrustworthiness, how can its archives be trusted?  Slight digression: Jason Speck wrote an interesting article a few years ago on the issue of trust for the archival profession. While not specifically focussed on the question of state vs NGO archives, it does speak to historical failings in the profession to be trustworthy custodians and the need for archivists to reconsider how best to (re)earn trust...

Speck, Jason G.(2010) 'Protecting Public Trust: An Archival Wake-Up Call', Journal of Archival Organization, 8: 1, 31 — 53

This issue comes into play in contexts many would consider far removed from the transitional justice paradigm - for example, I'm thinking of the TRC on residential schools in Canada and the assertion that the TRC archives should not be in state custody, given the complicity of the Canadian state in the abuse that took place in these schools...

Back to the question of NGO vs state archives - we had some interesting discussions on this point at a UNHRC seminar I attended in February last year on the importance of archives as a means to guarantee the right to the truth and to report on the outcome of the seminar to the Council at its seventeenth session. While I don't agree entirely with the seminar report (isn't that the nature of seminars?), it does speak to the idea on establishing 'intermediate archives' in transitional contexts where trust is an issue, and also considers how the archival profession has an obligation to support NGOS in developing greater capacity to manage their records - see for the report

UNHRC link

Exactly, Catherine, the notion of inalienability relies on what some have called a "banal nationalism" that rests ultimate authority in the nation-state.This is still the dominant default archival model for records created by the state, despite abundant proof of state failure.

We need a new model of archival stewardship built on trust, not on nationalism. What is also key here, I think, is a shift from seeing records as something that archives have custody of to seeing records as something for which archives are stewards. This shift from custodianship to stewardship (proposed by Joel Wurl in another context) should be built on an ongoing relationship of trust with the survivors of abuse and the family members of victims, I think. I think this shift to stewardship also fits nicely with T-Kay's work with local NGOS in that it acknowledges the important role of the archivist as steward even in a postcustodial situation.

And also a one-size-fits-all principle (like inalienability) does not take into account the complex cultural, historical, and political contexts in which records are created, collected, and shared. Stay tuned for my article (currently under review) for more on all of this!

Thanks for sharing the trust article, Catherine. The link to the UNHRC seminar report isn't working. Could you repost it?

Archiving as a tool for reconciliation.

Hi everbody, my name is Mohammad and I am New Tactics' MENA Research and Online Outreach Officer. I'm very happy be taking part in this important discussion. It's been interesting reading some of the comments here, I think archiving can be a great tool for education and reconciliation. While living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for a year, I was able to witness some projects different organizations like B'tselem were doing over there in south mount Hebron and other places. I'm very happy to see two B'tselem members here with us. Another initiative that also comes to my mind is Zochrot (Hebrew), Memory( English), an organization that collects documents and information about Palestinian villages before 1948 to bring them to the consciousness of Israeli citizens.

Also in Egypt, Tahrir Monologues, encourages activists who took part in the 18-day uprising last year to send their stories from the uprising whether via e-mails, Facebook or Twitter and is bringing these stories to life in the form of theater and performing arts.

Hi Grace, good to meet you too.

Hi Grace,

I agree that there definitely are persisting challenges to documenting and preserving records of human rights abuses. As there are currently small yet promising inititiatives like Tahrir Monologues, it is natural, I think that societies will attend to this issue when uprisings wind down in the cases of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. I think activists there are more concerned about reporting what happens on the ground now to garner support for their cause than to archive for future references. I hope this answers your questions.





other MENA archiving projects?

Hi Mohammad

You mentioned that there were a few other small but promising projects similar to Tahrir Monologues. I'd be interested in knowing more about these other initiatives, if you can tell us more about them.

A couple of grassroots projects that I'm aware of are:

Syrian Martyrs Database ( - a browsable database of people who have been killed in the uprising. Includes info such as name, gender, death method, city of death, links to video or picture of person if available, etc.

Tahrir Documents ( - Not sure who is behind this, but it's a Wordpress site that displays scanned copies of documents collected from Tahrir Square, and translated into English.

Archiving the archive

Incidentally, both the American University in Cairo and HRDI are archiving the Tahrir Documents site through Archive-It. All versions of the archived site can be viewed here and here. (AUC and HRDI's archive, respectively)

Chicago-Kent College of Law is archiving Syrian Martyrs Database through Archive-It. All versions of the archived site are here

A counter example

I want to raise the point that, although there are some amazing examples of archives promoting and defending human rights, there are also some terrible examples of records and archives actually aiding or furthering human rights abuse. There is nothing inherently liberating or progressive about records and archives, but rather they can be used for both the degradation and promotion of human rights. It all depends on how humans put them to use. Context is key. That may be obvious, but I want to complicate a little bit are notion of archives as tools for accountability by mentioning that they are often used as tools for repression as well.

An example from my own work: The Khmer Rouge took approximately 20,000 mug shots of prisoners entering Tuol Sleng prison. The overwhelming majority of these prisoners (all but 202 or 7, depending on whom you ask) were brutally tortured and then sent to the killing fields to be murdered. The photographs the Khmer Rouge took of these prisoners filled a practical function in the sense that they were used to report arrests up the chain of command so that high-ranking officers could keep tabs on who was arrested. But the mug shots also served a discursive function in that the act of taking them transformed the arrested suspects into criminals that could be measured, recorded, and eliminated. In this case, the creation of the record was not merely a byproduct of activity (the arrest), as traditional Western archival theory would have it, but an act of dehumanization integral to the Khmer Rouge bureaucratic killing machine.The records created the criminal, as it were.

Of course, those same records are now being used to hold some Khmer Rouge officers accountable and help survivors identify and mourn the dead. The same can also be said of Nazi punch cards. I think archivists spend alot of time valorizing recordkeeping, and though there are many cases in which archives/ records and archivists/ recordkeepers promote human rights, there are many examples to the contrary. This is really a call to instill ethics in professionals as well-- a related but important archival education issue.

Thank very much Michelle for

Thank very much Michelle for raising this issue and for sharing your experience. I agree with you, context is certainly key in archiving and documentation.



archives/record-keeping as a threat to human rights

That's absolutely true Michelle, and is a good response to a question Mario posed last week about the propensity for totalitarian states to document and keep records of their crimes.  In Cambodia, Guatemala etc record-keeping and documentation were a form of control. 

Additionally, in the HR realm we are acutely aware that there is no tool that can not also be used by perpetrators, especially state perpetrators, eg the Iranian government's use of twitter and youtube to identify and punish protesters in 2009.  The danger of documentation falling into the wrong hands with potentially fatal consequnces is very real.  When I first began working at WITESS I read an article by Bruce Montgomery in which he noted that some HRNGOs would actually destroy records for exactly that reason, which being new to HR at the time shocked me, but no longer.

Grace Lile


You beat me to the punch

You beat me to the punch Grace! :-)

Indeed, I am utterly fascinated by this issue and hope that others with more experience/knowledge can help tease out this question of the propensity of repressive regimes to document their brutal machinations and the extent to which they create elaborate networks of information, documentation, etc., to track their victim's every move, as well as what they eventually do to them.

But I also wanted to touch upon the second issue you mentioned insofar as others have noted a concern about the preservation/archiving of the increasing amount of material now being posted on youtube, et. al. and that is being facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies. Although they are incredibly liberating tools (helping democratize the process of the documentation of human rights violations, among other things), there are radically disturbing downsides to their use, such as you mentioned. We hear all the time in the West about our dangeroulsy laissez-faire attitude about putting our personal information on the web (which can often open us up to identity theft, etc.), but this takes on more ominious dimensions when one realizes that the State is privy to this information as well. Who needs informants anymore, when you can just hack into someone's email? (Note: I hope I don't come off as some crazy conspiracy theorist!! :-)

Finally, I have Bruce Montgomery story: When I first started doing my research on primary sources on the civil war, I contacted Bruce and he noted the great reluctance expressed by HRNGO's in El Salvador to let anyone access and/or photocopy their records, without direct supervision by a staff member, for fear of their materials ending up in the wrong hands; namely those of government and military officials from the old regime (still in office/leadership roles) who could use the records to persecute victims, witnesses, etc. Given these factors and the extent to which political regimes are in constant flux in certain parts of the world, it doesn't suprise me that some would take it so far as to burn evidence of their activities and of people's testimonies against their persecutors. Perhaps to forestall this possibility, in the mid-1990s, Bruce raised monies for a copy machine, had it shipped to El Salvador, assembled a team of people to copy the records of several HRNGOs (under direct supervision of course), and later smuggled these records out of the country. A potentially dangerous prospect at the time. These materials are now housed at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Guatemala National Police Archive

There have been a few references made to the Guatemalan National Police Archive here and elsewhere in this dialogue, and I wanted to make sure to post about the role the archive has played in achieving justice there. It has provided irreplaceable and indispensable information that's been used both to identify perpetrators and to assess command responsibility for abuses and atrocities. The story is about both the importance and utility of archives and the role statistical analysis can play in protecting human rights and seeking justice.

The narrative is an interesting one--from stumbling upon some 80 million-plus pages of documents in an old munitions warehouse near Guatemala City, to creating a random sample using three-dimensional space, to identifying responsibility for particular abuses, and finally to convictions and court orders to continue looking up the chain of command. I invite interested readers to visit the links below to learn more about the archive and how the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG, a part of Benetech's Human Rights Program) and its partners leveraged the documents for purposes of justice and human rights, as well as how they used the Martus human rights documentation software to digitally preserve, store and organize their sample data before analysis.

More Guatemala National Police Archive resources

Thanks for all the additional information about the Guatemalan National Police Archive (AHPN), Collin.

I also want to point out a few more resources related to this important collection. The National Security Archive has published numerous documents and reports (link goes to all Latin America material, not just materials on Guatemala) on the Guatemala archive and accountability efforts that utilize the archival documents. Many thanks to Kate Doyle and Trudy Huskamp Peterson for their work with the AHPN over the years.

Also, UT held a conference when it launched the online digital archive of the AHPN. It featured presentations and remarks from the Guatemala National Police Archive Director, the Director of the General Archive of Central America, an analyst from Benetech, academics, and UT collaborators. All the audio and video from the conference are available online here

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