John D. Ciorciari is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy. His interests include international law, politics, and international finance.
Official records are some of the most incredible information about state-sanctioned or even state-orchestrated abuses against populations. And in the aftermath of mass atrocities its essential to have those as a record for court proceedings, but also for historical records so that the general public can understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Many governments, including highly repressive governments, keep surprisingly detailed records of their abuses for the purpose of managing control over internal information in the government. The difficulty has been to get government to then later preserve this information, make it publicly available.
It's tended to happen when there was a rapid transfer of power from a more repressive government to a more democratic one, such as the fall of the communist governments in Eastern Europe or the fall of the military governments in Latin America.
Many of the abuses that need to be documented were committed by governments that are still in power. And it's been very difficult to pry away sovereign control of official records without some amount of pressure on states to make the right decisions.
In countries like Syria there's an opportunity for political change and if the Syrian government falls, there likely will be troughs of documents discovered that the regime has used for decades. There are examples from around the world where this is has happened, they include Cambodia, Iraq, Guatemalan police files. If that occurs, a concerted international effort will be essential for those documents to be protected, secured, preserved, organized, and disseminated responsibly.
International actors have a very strong role to play in advocating for responsible choices by host governments with regard to human rights archives. It's difficult to imagine without some of the pressure that governments will make the choices that, in fact, give rise to the truth.