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Archiving mass atrocities gives victims a chance to uncover the truth

October 31, 2013

Egyptian protesters feared security agents were shredding and burning documents of abuses under the Hosni Mubarak regime, so in March 2011 they stormed the former headquarters of the secret police to seize them.

Such documents have immense power to shed light on the workings of deposed regimes and the abuses they perpetrated, said John Ciorciari, assistant professor of public policy and senior legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

"In the wake of mass abuses, archival information can clearly have a powerful impact on accountability proceedings such as criminal trials and truth commissions," Ciorciari said. "That potential has been clear since Nuremberg, where documents and films played crucial roles in the conviction of Nazi criminals."

Many governments, including highly repressive governments, keep surprisingly detailed records of their abuses to manage control over internal information, he said. The difficulty lies in getting the records preserved and publicly available.

Ciorciari argues that using sound archival methodology and a transparent set of norms helps build a credible foundation for accountability and accurate historical memory.

He studied examples from Cambodia, Guatemala, Iraq, Paraguay, Serbia and other countries to develop the argument for a foundational approach. It can be painstaking, but is a key investment for societies emerging from periods of misrule.

Archives that rest on a firm foundation can also help societies advance and heal through memory initiatives. Some archives have hired staff scholars to contribute to "telling the story" of what happened during a period of turmoil and why. Others have merely opened their doors to outside analysts.

"International actors have a very strong role to play in advocating for responsible choices by host governments with regard to human rights archives," Ciorciari said. "It's difficult to imagine without some of the pressure that governments will make the choices that, in fact, give rise to the truth."