Archives and the fight against impunity

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Archives can put dictators and their collaborators into jail and bring truth to the families of victims and to societies. Once upon a time, archives were seen merely as documentary evidence needed for administrative purposes, cultural heritage, or sources for history. Recent transitional justice experiences around the globe tell another story. Archives can be—and often are—instrumental in the fight against impunity.

The book Archives and Human Rights brings together 17 case studies from different parts of the world written by experts, all demonstrating this point. These cases include, among others, South Africa and Rwanda, Cambodia and Sino-Japanese relations, Spain, France and the Algerian War, Romania, Germany and the legacy of the German Democratic Republic, Colombia, Argentina, and Guatemala.

The objective of the book is to serve as a tool and as an inspiration for future endeavors to use archives in defense of human rights. The following three examples of cases clearly show how records can make a decisive difference for transitional justice and the fight against impunity.

The case study by Henri Thulliez on the archives of Hissène Habré’s political police in Chad demonstrates that it was thanks to these records that the dictator could be brought to trial and held accountable. The author reveals how, in 2001, a journalist and two researchers from Human Rights Watch discovered thousands of documents lying on the ground of a former prison covered by a thick layer of dust. Years later, they were used during the trial against the former dictator. A handwritten note by Habré was particularly important as a “smoking gun” to prove that he was directly controlling the fate—and in many cases the death—of the prisoners.

In Cambodia, those archives that were not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge after the defeat of the regime in January 1979 were instrumental for the later trials against the perpetrators of the genocide from 1975 to 1979. The documents found in the Tuol Sleng Prison and other locations in Phnom Penh were essential in documenting the chain of command and the distribution of responsibilities. The author of this case study, Vincent de Wilde d’Estmael, served as one of the prosecutors at the trials. Without these documents, the Cambodian people and the international community would not have been able to hold the leaders of the committed atrocities legally responsible for their actions.

Kirsten Weld demonstrates in her study of Guatemala that archival access and management are fundamentally political. Governments closely allied with the military have systematically tried to hamper access to documents that could reveal the responsibilities of leading politicians and military officers in the genocidal violence of security forces in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, the government claimed that the relevant files had been stolen, lost, or destroyed. When, in 2005, around 75 million pages of police documents were found in a warehouse in Guatemala City, a new chapter opened, marked by transparency and willingness to pursue perpetrators of human rights violations. That was until the government changed again and archival access became increasingly difficult.

The book also provides a broader perspective and a historical background on the relation between archives and human rights. In contemporary history, after the Second World War, the first milestones in the development of international justice on human rights are the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. During the Cold War, international human rights justice didn’t advance much but, in the 1990s, developments accelerated. An international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established in 1993 and another for Rwanda in 1994. In 1998 a UN conference agreed on the Rome Treaty, thus paving the way for the creation of the International Criminal Court, which formally came into existence in 2002. However, although 123 countries have ratified the treaty so far, major powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia, have not.

Simultaneously with these developments, in the 1990s the importance and relevance of archives and records for the fight against impunity were increasingly recognized and emphasized by both the UN and the archival community. At the request of UNESCO, Spanish archivist Antonio González Quintana wrote, in 1995, a study of the archives of security services of former repressive regimes. The culminating point for the archival profession was the organization in Cape Town in 2003 of the first international conference on the topic of archives and human rights, with Desmond Tutu as the keynote speaker.

Also in the 1990s, a French jurist, Louis Joinet, was asked by the UN to prepare a report on the fight against impunity. In his report from 1997, he identified 42 principles, grouped around three pillars: the right to know the truth, the right to justice, and the right to reparation. Five of the principles specifically concerned preservation of and access to archives. These “Joinet-principles” were adopted by the UN in 1998.

The UN Human Rights Council has on several occasions highlighted the importance of archives for the right to know the truth. Since 2013, special rapporteurs on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence regularly refer to the crucial role of archives for the effectiveness of this right, especially in countries in transition from repressive regimes.

Despite these uses of archives for justice, there is still a long way to go. One example is business archives. The cobalt wars in Congo and the use of private military and police forces in some countries are examples of scenarios where business archives could help document violations of human rights.

As Michelle Bachelet, former UN high commissioner for human rights, points out in her foreword to the book, archives of human rights violations are not only about the past. They help build society’s future.

Painful memories haunt us like ghosts. They come to us from prisons and torture centres; they come from all over the world where people are being persecuted for what they believe in or simply for who they are. Using archives to document human rights violations is a way of confronting the ghosts and beginning to build a brighter, more serene future. 


Note: The book Archives and Human Rights was published in a Spanish version in March 2023 and a French version will be published later in 2023 by the Institut Francophone pour la Justice et la Démocratie.