Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary: Before the Water Comes: Mapping for Preservation

After the heart-breaking reports of Hurricane Dorian’s devastation in the Bahamas, I emailed Patrice Williams, the director of the National Archives, and asked, “Are you and your colleagues okay after hurricane Dorian? Did you have damage to the archives?” She replied that both the colleagues and the archives are safe, as they were out of the direct path of the storm. “Whew,” I thought. But we know that a national archives does not hold all important records: business records, archives of faith-based institutions, school records, archives of all sorts of nongovernmental institutions, local notary and land transaction records, personal papers in homes and bank boxes—these are all vulnerable and the damage to them cannot be determined with a quick email.

 It is not clear what effect global warming had on the violence of the Category 5 hurricane that was Dorian, but it is unquestionable that climate change is real, with no cessation in sight. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report showed oceans warmer than estimated (see HRWG News 2018-10 and 2019-01); for a recent analysis of the warming world, see Along with warmer oceans, climate change brings the melt of ice caps and glaciers, leading to sea level rise. As the National Geographic explains, “The most recent special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we can expect the oceans to rise between 10 and 30 inches (26 to 77 centimeters) by 2100 with temperatures warming 1.5 °C. . . . Another analysis based on NASA and European data skewed toward the higher end of that range, predicting a rise of 26 inches (65 centimeters) by the end of this century if the current trajectory continues.” That will mean permanent flooding in thousands of populated areas, not only on the coasts but also along the rivers that lead to the sea.

 We know that in the wake of disasters people need documents. The foresighted Syrian project called The Day After copied court and land records in Aleppo, Syria, and took copies out of the country to save them from manmade disaster. But people also need records of marriages, education, employment, affiliations, health. And communities need the documents of heritage in order to root themselves in their culture.

 Archivists have thought a great deal about coping with disasters, such as floods and hurricanes that result in (usually) temporary displacement. And archivists have given some thought to disaster preparedness, too. But inexorable climate change requires a longer strategy. Archives of all kinds will have to assess the risk, decide how to mitigate that risk, and take action, which may take years to accomplish. Does the archives move? Does it stay in place but send security copies to another location, either in the country or outside? Does it need evacuation plans? Will building changes, like a seawall, be enough?

 To begin, archivists must to understand the scope of the changes that are coming. One way to do this is to map. The first step would be to map the locations of the archives in the country or province, including in government offices, major businesses, faith-based organizations, schools, and so forth. No mapping project will find all of them, but it should be able to locate the major ones. Next overlay that map with the best projections of sea level rise, such as in the forthcoming IPCC publication Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate ( With that information in hand, a council of stakeholders can assess the nature of the risk and decide on actions that need to be taken to prevent mass loss of archives.

 As the world’s climate continues its rapid change, we can be certain that not all archives will be as lucky as the National Archives of the Bahamas was this time. We archivists need to get ready to preserve the records of our civilizations.

Commentary: "as only archivists can do"

“As only archivists can do,” said the prosecutor. The case was in Italy, but it could have been in Guatemala or Bangladesh or anywhere. Here is the story:

  In January 2017 a tribunal in Rome sentenced two former heads of state and two ex-chiefs of security forces from Bolivia and Peru, two military officers from Chile, and a former Uruguayan foreign minister to life imprisonment for their involvement in the coordinated, cross-border system of repression known as “Operation Condor.” The case involved the “disappearance” of 42 dual citizens – 33 Italian-Uruguayans, 5 Italian-Argentinians and 4 Italian-Chileans. And although the court convicted the five, it acquitted all other defendants (14), of whom eleven were Uruguayan.

 During that trial Giulia Barrera, senior archivist at the national archives of Italy, was an expert witness for the prosecution. At the beginning of the trial, the prosecutor encouraged the court to read at least a few crucial documents regarding the creation of Operation Condor and suggested the court also read the transcript of the testimony of “historian and archivist” Giulia Barrera, who provided tools for understanding the value of such documents “as only archivists can do.” The prosecutor said Dr. Barrera analyzed the documents with “specific technique and made an assessment of the value of sources” so that the documents could be incorporated in the trial with full confidence about their value. The prosecution then presented U.S. declassified documents and documents from the archives of Paraguay, Uruguay and other sources. The court considered these documents crucial evidence of the existence of Operation Condor and of its criminal nature.

 The decision in the first trial was appealed, and the Court of Appeal combined it with other related cases, several of which concerned persons who were kidnapped and killed in international illegal repressive operations carried out in the framework of Operation Condor. Archival documents again played a crucial role. During the appeal trial no witness was admitted, but the lawyer for the State of Uruguay was able to present new archival documents that were recently declassified in Uruguay, including the personal military file of Nestor Troccoli, a Uruguayan Navy officer with dual Italo-Uruguayan citizenship who fled Uruguay to escape trial and took refuge in Italy.

 On 9 July 2019 the Court of Appeal sentenced all 24 defendants to life imprisonment for the murder of Italian citizens (Italo-Chilean and Italo-Uruguayan) who were “disappeared” in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s. Only one defendant, Troccoli, was present; the rest were sentenced “in absentia.” Finally, justice.

 As only archivists can do, indeed.;; ; The entire trial was recorded by “Radio Radicale” and is available here

 Note: The June commentary suggested that the “critical test of the right to be wrong must be whether acting on the belief hurts others.” Antoon De Baets wrote to say that the right to be wrong is supported in General Comment 34 on States parties' obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The only legitimate grounds for restricting the right to freedom of expression listed in the ICCPR are (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; and (b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals. Paragraph 49 of the General Comment says, “The Covenant does not permit general prohibition of expressions of an erroneous opinion or an incorrect interpretation of past events.”

Commentary: Holes in the Poles and the right to be wrong

They appeared in the doorway, two middle-aged men in dark suits, white shirts, dark ties. Dick, my boss in the office of U.S. Presidential archives, asked how he could help them. “We know,” one said, “that ships from outer space have landed on the White House lawn in every Administration since Taft and you are hiding the records.” No, Dick replied, space ships had not landed on the White House lawn, there are no records of such events, and the archives was not hiding such records from the public. “You lie,” they said. After a little more discussion, the men explained that there are holes at the North and South Poles that lead to sub-tropical paradises where space ships fly in to refuel. That led Dick to suggest that they talk with the archivist who handled the records of polar explorations. They did. That archivist had just participated in an expedition to Antarctica; he told them he had been to the South Pole and there was no hole there. “You lie,” they said.

 Many people are concerned about fake information posted to social media (see  and items below in the technology section). But at least as worrying is the trend to believe things that are demonstrably wrong, disbelieving government (space ships did not land on the White House lawn), experience (I was at the South Pole), or professionalism (we did not hide records).

 A core human right is the freedom of belief. But does that entail the right to be wrong, to believe an untruth in the face of truth? A representative of the British Red Cross Society said that since the August 2018 outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo its workers have heard “more than 33,000 individual rumours, observations and beliefs related to Ebola,” such as “The Ebola virus doesn’t exist; it’s a virus that was made to eliminate the Congolese.” How, he asked, “do you fight a disease people don’t believe in?”

 The Wellcome Global Monitor polled people in 144 countries on beliefs about vaccines, which again and again have proven effective. It found that in France one in three people think vaccines are unsafe--the highest rate in the world--and nearly one in five believe they aren’t effective. “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), reluctance or refusal to vaccinate is now one of the top ten major threats to global health. One manifestation of this is that even people in high-income countries, with good healthcare systems, are dying from easily preventable diseases.”

 To be sure, there is an enormous difference between believing in holes in the Poles and believing that Ebola does not exist. The critical test for the right to be wrong must be whether acting on the belief hurts others. Believing in space ships is unlikely to harm anyone, but failure to treat a communicable disease surely can. There are limits to the right to be wrong.

 Archivists know that the records we manage contain both truths and untruths, and when we provide a certified true copy of a document we only assure the recipient that it is a true copy, not that the information in the document is true. But we do hold records that are demonstrably true: that a treaty exists, that a person was appointed to a university post, that the efficacy and safety of a vaccine was tested before it was put on the market. And we hold records showing that an action or transaction was based on false information, prejudice, and fear. Our task is to ensure that the original record is protected, knowing that a copy of it can be manipulated in many ways and its information can be believed, disbelieved or ignored. But if you do happen to have a reliable, original image of a subtropical paradise at either Pole, let me know.

Commentary: "Expect the machines to take control"

Ask a classroom of university students to list the researcher advantages of digital archives, whether digitized or born digital, and you get predictable answers: available without respect to location, time of day, age, physical mobility, or political system--in other words, democratic access. Some savvier students may say it helps preserve papers and photographs because they aren’t handled. A few may complain gently about the thousands of hits they get for a simple query, but most are happy to search without having to develop a search strategy. They fail to note that the actual researcher is a machine.  

 The broad uses of artificial intelligence (AI) and the increasingly sophisticated algorithms employed raise significant issues for researchers, for human rights and for archives.  

 Consider this: According to the Daily Mail, the European Union plans to introduce “swarms of AI driven robots that can patrol borders by surveillance of the sea and land.” The robots’ data will be fed to a control room where it will be linked to data from “static sensors.” An algorithm will then identify “threats” to be sent to “border authorities” and “operational personnel.” A leader of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control told the Italian magazine Il Manifesto the group wants “to prevent two functions of the machines: target selection and targeting.” AI systems for facial recognition are known to incorporate bias: according to researchers at two U.S. universities “three commercially released facial-analysis programs from major technology companies demonstrate both skin-type and gender biases.” In tests, “the three programs’ error rates in determining the gender of light-skinned men were never worse than 0.8 percent. For darker-skinned women, however, the error rates ballooned — to more than 20 percent in one case and more than 34 percent in the other two.” So how accurate will the EU robots be in identifying border crossers, smugglers, and polluters, the targets of the EU programs?;

 Or think about this records issue: A non-profit organization in California developed an algorithm which “can, at the touch of a button, delete the criminal records of thousands of people,” Digital Journal reported. Called “Clear My Record,” the algorithm examines “thousands of lines of conviction data and determines eligibility [for destruction] within minutes.” The developer says it could “clear 250,000 convictions throughout California by the end of 2019.” Let’s hope the algorithm was taught records retention rules.

 Or this structural archives issue: A records management official in a government agency that is installing an artificial intelligence system to manage the agency’s records from retention to retrieval to destruction was asked if the AI system eventually would be transferred to the national archives along with the records. He said he thought that the national archives would never hold AI-powered records, that the records would stay permanently in the agency and be managed by it with the national archives having solely a monitoring role.

 Or this freedom of information issue: Is an algorithm employed by a government reachable as a record under a freedom of information act? Italy has a case on point. After a national public exam to hire teachers, the Italian Ministry of Education used an algorithm to assign teachers to schools. A legal battle followed, as teachers unhappy with assignments demanded to know how the algorithm worked. Italy’s highest administrative court decided that the algorithm was an administrative document, created by humans who gave it specific instructions, and therefore was covered by the right of access law. (Thanks to Giulia Barrera for the information.); for the court decision see

 Finally, in addition to concerns about bias in targeting as a human rights issue and destruction and retrieval as archives issues, AI adopters are realizing that “training” a major AI system is a massive task. Moreover: As reported in n a new paper, researchers at a U.S. university “performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emission of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).” So in addition to the complex intellectual task of training, there is an environmental impact.

 The Council of Europe (CoE) has taken a step to address the human rights concerns that arise from the machine as researcher. CoE’s Commissioner for Human Rights issued “Unboxing Artificial Intelligence: 10 Steps to Protect Human Rights.” Step 7, on data protection and privacy, says member states should have legislative safeguards when AI systems are used to process “genetic data; personal data relating to offences, criminal proceedings and convictions, and related security measures; biometric data; personal data relating to ‘racial’ or ethnic origin, political opinions, trade-union membership, religious or other beliefs, health or sexual life.” Now we need to think how those principles will apply to archives.

 As long ago as 1951Alan Turing, the brilliant World War II era British mathematician and computer visionary, wrote in the essay Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory, “It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… They would be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage therefore, we should have to expect the machines to take control.”

 It’s time to take notice.

Commentary: Hold 'em

Hold ‘em or fold ‘em? Use it or lose it? In the popular card game poker, hold ‘em [them] means you play with the cards you have and fold ‘em means you throw them down and quit. Use it or lose it is a popular culture phrase, often referring to sexual activity by senior citizens. Both phrases have something to teach us about archives of conflict.

 As the wars in Syria, Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan decrease in intensity, demands increase to hold perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable for their actions. Enormous quantities of information have been amassed by official bodies such as the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and a host of private groups including the Commission for International Justice and Accountability in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, the Syrian Observatory, the International Bar Associations’ eyewitness to Atrocities app, and others. There is no dearth of evidence.

 Realistically, the International Criminal Court will not handle cases arising from these conflicts; it prosecutes high-level officials and military leaders, not the majority of persons who committed crimes. The courts of local and national governments are too weak or corrupt to be fair. Yet victims want a justice process.

 A troubling element is the recent decision by the International Criminal Court on Afghanistan. In November 2017 the ICC Prosecutor asked the judges “for permission to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the Afghan conflict, including by the U.S. military,” Justiceinfo. net reported. In March 2019 the U.S. Secretary of State announced, “If you’re responsible for the proposed ICC investigation of U.S. personnel in connection with the situation in Afghanistan you should not assume that you still have, or will get, a visa or that you will [be] permitted to enter the U.S.” In April the visa of the ICC prosecutor was revoked; the ICC judges decided to deny the Prosecutor’s request to open an investigation. A recently departed ICC prosecutor said that “the information about alleged crimes by the CIA was very strong,” and in the wake of the decision “we may see a situation where alleged criminal activity under international law that has been acknowledged by the U.S. government and documented by other courts, government, NGOs and victims go unprosecuted.” ; ;

 So the world is accumulating an ever-increasing amount of evidence on crimes that go unpunished, from Sri Lanka to Papua to Rwanda. The list of only UN investigations into serious international crimes is long—Congo, Myanmar, Burundi, South Sudan, etc.--and the records exist; see Add to that the records of the nongovernmental organizations that monitor conflicts and we have persuasive records of atrocities committed. Should we say that because this evidence can’t be used now, we will lose the opportunity to hold accountable (use it or lose it)? Or do we believe that, in the longer term, there may be a path to justice (hold ‘em not fold ‘em)? 

 We are seeing some evidence that many years later persons can be held accountable. Both Peru and Romania are beginning trials for crimes committed in the 1980s; Argentina recently completed a trial on events in 1976 (see items below). Sudan’s dictator, long under ICC indictment, is now in jail; whether he will be transferred to The Hague is unclear. Having records of the atrocities committed is essential, perhaps especially for delayed justice. So to archivists who manage records of conflicts and investigations, the advice is: Hold ‘em.


Commentary: Summer is icumen in--and so is climate change

“Sumer is Icumen in,” sang 13th century Brits. Today both summer and climate change are “icumen in.” The UN Secretary-General, alarmed by the World Meteorological Organization’s report on “rising global temperatures and disastrous consequences,” announced a Climate Action Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. He told Heads of State, “Don’t come with a speech, come with a plan.”;; for report see

 The Observer Research Foundation, an Indian nongovernmental “think tank,” analyzed the world’s “capacity for climate justice.” Pointing to “extreme weather events and rising average temperatures,” it said “the socio-economic effects of climate change include the potential mass migration of individuals and communities in the future.” Coastal communities in the U.S. and Bangladesh have already been forced to move (see item in HRWG News 2019-01); nations like the Maldives, with an average elevation of just a meter and a half above sea level, are in danger of needing to move entire populations if the international community continues its “lacklustere global effort to curb human-induced climate change.”

 When people and institutions (commercial, faith-based, educational, medical, non-governmental, governmental, inter-governmental) move, records need to move with them. Archives buildings housing historical records may be located in vulnerable sites and need to be moved. And moving things is hard. Good advance planning is fundamental if the records are to be safely relocated. (For a brief overview of the complexities of preserving records during a planned move, see “Moving Archival Records: Guidelines for Preservation” by Gabriella Albrecht-Kunszeri and Maida H. Loescher, Comma, The International Journal on Archives: 2001/3/4.) But planning assumes we know where records are. And ironically, although archivists are the proponents of knowledge about records, often we don’t. A project in the United States to create a map of archives encountered a significant amount of difficulty—and that did not include mapping the locations of records still in the hands of the creators.

 What we need now--all over the world but especially in locations under threat from climate change—is to map the location of historical archives and current records and to overlay that map with maps of climate change impacts (for example, the map of sea level change ). That would allow us to identify the materials that need to be either relocated within the nation or, as a last resort, stored (digital copy or analog) in an external safe haven. 

 Who can do such mapping? National archival institutions, archival associations, universities—in short, any entity with persons who have the skills and time to do it. Donors such as foundations could be tapped for funds. UNESCO should pay a role in promoting the project. And when a regional or national map is completed, stakeholders should gather to decide how to proceed with far-sighted, informed, realistic preservation measures. As the Secretary-General said, we need to stop talking and come together and plan. 

Commentary: A road paved with records

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost (U.S. poet), 1915

 During the past decade young men and women from all over the world took the road to ISIS in the Middle East. Most were Muslim, some were not; most were men, some were women; some went to Syria, some went to Iraq and other countries with ISIS affiliates. After arriving in Syria, some burned their passports.

 Now that the ISIS jihadist group is cornered in Syria, some members, captives, and people swept up in the group’s territory are fleeing and surrendering. Held in various jails and detention centers, they include children born while their mothers were with ISIS. Some detainees want to return to their native lands where their parents are anxious to see their children and grandchildren. The return, however, is controversial in the home countries, whose officials worry that these ISIS adherents may not have renounced extremism and will be a danger to national security.

 In late 2017 Iraq and Russia announced they were setting up a joint database listing Russian-speaking children “whose parents are believed to have been killed while fighting in Islamic State group ranks” and who are in “government-run children’s homes in Baghdad” in order to return them to relatives in Russia. Russia estimated there are “around 500 children” from “Russian origin or from former Soviet Union countries” in these homes. When the Iraqi government receives official documents from the Russian Embassy in Baghdad “proving that those children are from a Russian origin” the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council decides whether the child should be sent to Russia and the Immigration Department “stamps the passport.” How many of these children have been transported has not been reported.

 Unlike that situation, today’s potential returnees are adults and sometimes adults with children. According to the Washington Post, France is considering bringing home more than 100 former Islamic State fighters, with their families, while Belgium’s government is fighting a judge’s order to “repatriate six Belgian children along with their mothers, former Islamic State sympathizers who twice travelled to Syria.”  It is relatively easy for a government to determine whether a person was issued a passport, and in most countries there are birth registrations and school records and social services and census data that show citizenship. But two examples show the complications that may arise when a government considers a return.

             * Shamima Begum, born in the U.K. to Bangladeshi parents who are naturalized citizens, ran away from her home in 2015 to join ISIS. She wants to come back. In the U.K. it is only possible to strip someone of U.K. nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere “and it is thought Ms Begum could be a Bangladeshi citizen because she was born to a mother believed to be Bangladeshi,” reported BBC News. Consequently, the U.K. Home Office sent a letter to her parents, saying she was stripped of U.K. citizenship and barred from return. An immigration lawyer told the Washington Post that children of Bangladeshi parents are automatically citizens at birth but this ends at age 21 “if they do not make an effort to retain that citizenship.”  Shamima has not done so; unless she acts, in two years she could be stateless. The nationality of her infant son, whose father is Dutch, is also in question. The Guardian reported that the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service said “to live in the Netherlands with a Dutch national, a spouse or partner would need a resident permit – which would require a valid passport or other travel document,” neither of which she has.

 *If that case is not complicated enough, look at the case of Hoda Muthana. She was born in the U.S. on 28 October 1994 to Yemeni parents. Her father was a Yemeni diplomat at the United Nations, and he “surrendered his diplomatic identity” either in June 1994 before his daughter was born, making her a birthright U.S. citizen, or in February 1995, which would make her a Yemeni. After Hoda’s birth both parents got residence “green cards” and stayed in the U.S. Hoda got a U.S. passport in 2004 and a renewal in 2014, just before she went to Syria and joined ISIS where she publicly burned her passport. She now wishes to return. The U.S. government revoked her passport in January 2016 saying it had been issued in error: she was not a birthright citizen because “the US Mission to the UN’s records showed that Muthana’s father didn’t lose diplomatic status until months after Hoda was born.” A further complication: she has a small son whose father is Tunisian; it is not clear where her son is a citizen.

 Passports, birth records, green cards, naturalization records, border control records, video evidence of actions on behalf of ISIS: whichever path is chosen, it is paved with documents. And that makes all the difference.


Commentary: Documentation for the Disappeared

“We went to the hardware store. My father and I waited in the pickup while my husband went in. He never came out.” That was all the Guatemalan woman said to me, simply, without explaining what happened next, but we can guess: the increasing concern, the decision to go into the store and find him, the questioning of the clerk, the panic, the decision to go home not to the police, the calls to family and friends, the wait to see if there is a ransom demand, the deadening realization that he is not coming back, the juggling of finances to cover needs, the heart-rending decision to ask that he be declared dead so that life can go on.

 Resolving disappearances is crucial to the health of any society and the stability of its government. And yet, as the attorney general of El Salvador admitted (see below), although disappearances in the country had increased by 10% in 2018 to 3,514 cases, El Salvador still has “no institutionally agreed methodology to count disappearances.” To begin to fill this methodology need, the United Nations Committee on Forced Disappearances drafted “Guiding Principles for the Search for Disappeared Persons,” now under revision.

 Records are a critical resource in the search for the disappeared. The revised Guiding Principles should insist that the records of each investigation must be managed competently from the start of the investigation to the disposition of the records when a case is closed. This is particularly important if the investigating authority is a temporary body rather than a regular part of the government or if it is faced with thousands of cases. The investigating authority should have a robust records management system both to handle the evidence it obtains on a case and to provide evidence of the work done by the authority with regard to the search. The authority should have a records schedule that states clearly what will happen to the records when a case is closed (whether by return of the disappeared person, retrieval of remains, or administrative procedure) and states which archives will receive the records of the authority, including both administrative and case-related records. The public, both persons who are searching for disappeared relatives and those who want to know how the authority carried out its mandate, has a right to know what will happen to the records.

 The Guiding Principles must apply to the records of both government and non-government entities. The Principles should acknowledge that business records often contain information needed for resolving human rights cases. Three recent examples:

*In December 2018 a court in Argentina convicted two former executives of a local Ford Motor Company plant of involvement in the 1976 kidnapping and torture of 24 workers employed by Ford at their factory on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Among their acts, the men were accused of providing photographs, home addresses and other personal data of the victims to agents of the dictatorship so they could be abducted.

*Also in December 2018, a Brazilian appeals court upheld the 2015 ruling against the Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta for the 2007 murder by Syngenta’s contract security firm of a member of a rural workers group that was protesting at Syngenta’s genetically modified food experiment site.

*After Colombia in August 2018 charged 13 former executives of United Fruit (Chiquita) company with using death squads to kill persons interfering with the work of its plantations, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, DC, published profiles of the 13 men “drawing on available public sources and a 48,000 page trove of the company’s internal records gained through [a] successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.” 

 We all wish there would be no need for the Guiding Principles, that no one would go into a hardware store and never come out. But until that wished-for day arrives, we need a good protocol for handling cases of the disappeared. No attorney general ever again should say, “We have no methodology to count disappearances.”

Commentary: The Year in Review

As we start a new year and look back on the tumult of the one just past, here are items from each month of HRWG News in 2018 that, taken together, illustrate the diversity of human rights issues that include archives. Best wishes for the year ahead!

 January.  One of the twins born of a Canadian surrogate mother from the mixed sperm of two male donors was found, through DNA testing, to be the child of the U.S. citizen donor, so the child was automatically a U.S. citizen and entitled to a U.S. passport, and the other twin, born of an Israeli donor, was not.

 February.  Setting an important precedent, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion that a healthy environment is a right “fundamental to the existence of humanity” and that States must avoid causing “significant” environmental damage inside or outside their territory and provide access to information related to potential environmental harms.

 March.  The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan took over 230 detailed individual witness statements and gathered over 58,000 documents, including confidential records, covering incidents in South Sudan since December 2013, but warned that “every day . . . documentary evidence is lost, concealed or destroyed.”

 April.  U.S. police compared DNA collected from a 1980 crime scene with DNA data on the genealogy website GEDmatch and found distant relatives of the suspect, who was arrested.

 May.  A study found that physicians who use stigmatizing language in their patients’ medical records may affect the care those patients get for years to come.

 June.  Using massive quantities of video footage of the February 2014 protests in Kiev, Ukraine, a research team reconstructed the deaths of three protesters to identify the sources of the bullets that killed them and created a composited video that was accepted as evidence by the criminal court hearing a case against five police officers.  

 July.  Germany’s Federal Court of Justice ruled that heirs should have access to the Facebook accounts of the deceased.

 August.  Israel’s Justice Minister instructed the Israel State Archives to release some 300,000 files relating to the children of Yemeni immigrants, whose disappearance after their arrival in Israel over a half century ago has been at the center of a lingering controversy.

 September.  India’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the government’s massive biometric identification and registration project, Aadhaar, but with restrictions.

 October.  The Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway, used 20 years of statistical studies on the relationship between education and political violence and found the “lack of male education appears to be the strongest predictor of conflict.” 

 November.  A Canadian judge ruled in favor of access to records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, citing the ICA position on access.

 December.  DNA tests on ancient remains in Australia and on samples from Indigenous people living in the area where the remains were found show clear links; this may enable repatriation of Indigenous human remains when provenance documentation is lacking.  


Commentary, A birthday gift for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

What do you give a 70-year-old for a birthday? If it is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, turning 70 on December 10, the answer might be a bit of reinforcement.

 The drafters of the Declaration were clear: this was a universal declaration, not a United Nations declaration, although the group worked under the aegis of the then-new UN. The Preamble of the Declaration proclaims that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Records are essential to protect these rights and to obtain recourse when these rights are violated. The nexus between human rights and archives is strong and complex.

 The Declaration was a statement of aspirations, but it lacked any means of enforcement. Work on an enforcement mechanism started soon after the declaration was adopted, leading to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which established treaty responsibilities of the signatory States. But what about violations by non-state actors, particularly by transnational corporations and business entities? Today the damage done to health, economic stability, cultural properties, and social well-being by corporate entities is undeniable. It is easy to see the effects on workers and communities that are co-located with an industrial site, but increasingly the impact is on all of us. As readers of HRWG News know, there has been a long list of failed attempts to hold multinationals accountable for human rights violations.

 The United Nations recognized this problem, and in 2011 the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the “UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. But, like the Universal Declaration, these Guiding Principles have no enforcement mechanism. There is a current proposal to adopt a legally binding instrument “to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” but its passage is far from sure. 

What does all this have to do with archives? The Guiding Principles, for all their words and the extended commentary, say NOTHING about the need for good corporate records in order to monitor the operations of the business, to ensure that there is a reliable record of the actions and transactions, that there is an effective retention of records that provide evidence of corporate actions that could reasonably be assumed to impact human rights. Not a word. Yet simply reading the document shows that the Principles cannot be upheld unless a business has a robust records management and archives program, preserving the records that demonstrate the institution’s compliance with—or lack of compliance with—the guidance.

 We need to assure that both transnational corporations and national companies have robust records programs. We need to support corporate archivists, whose paychecks come from the company, to insist on retention of records with a human rights component. And we need the international financial institutions to incorporate in their financing agreements both the requirement that the client consent to be bound by the Guiding Principles and that the client consent to maintain a trustworthy archives regime to ensure accountability processes.

 That would be a truly useful 70th birthday present for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Commentary, Geography and the fate of archives

We spent much of the last two decades talking about the use of archives in situations of transitional justice, focusing on the four pillars of holding accountable, ensuring no repetition, learning the truth of what happened, and providing reparations. We looked at a country’s traumatic, undemocratic past, but  exhibited an often naïve faith that its future would be more democratic than its past regime permitted. Now, however, we need to face the bleak reality that some countries go in the opposite direction, that a brief experience of a less repressive regime may be succeeded by the imposition—abruptly or by incremental steps—of a new repressive form of government or new repressors with a revival of the old form of government. 

In the face of this fragility, archivists need to think about the steps archives in countries sliding into neo-repression should take to protect their holdings. Obviously the type of archives makes a difference: government archives have certain constraints, while the archives in nongovernmental organizations, businesses, faith-based organizations, and private archives have different sets of issues to confront.

 The working group assembled by swisspeace to discuss archives at risk has made important progress in developing a protocol for handling archives that need a security copy outside the country. (The draft “Guiding Principles for Safe Havens for Archives at Risk” will be considered by the International Council on Archives at its meeting in late November.)  But seeking a safe haven is a step that often is taken only when an emergency is at hand.

 What should archivists do in countries where democratic rule is shaky but an emergency is not yet at recognized? Here are a few suggestions:

 *Identify the most important part of the holdings and identify which part of the holdings may be most at risk in the case of civil unrest or of a governmental confiscation. These may not be the same materials. A constitution or an ancient codex may be the most significant holding but may not be in danger, while routine lists of members of faith-based organizations may be.

 *Note whether the holdings at risk are copied; if not, decide whether they should be copied and whether a copy outside the country is necessary now.

 *Study the physical security of the archives building and the holding areas. Be alert to places where arson could be set easily. Think about who provides the security (the police, a private company) and its reliability. Think about who provides computer services; think about the strength of firewalls.

 *Agree upon who will decide to close the building abruptly in the face of unrest.

 *Agree upon who will take over the administration of the archives if the current administrator is forced to leave abruptly. Have a backup to the backup, too, as it is not unknown to have both the archivist and deputy archivist under threat.

 *Decide what to tell donors, including what the archives will do if faced with a legal demand to turn over the donor’s materials.

 “Geography is fate,” the Greek philosopher Herarclitis allegedly said. We know that is true for us as individuals, whether we are born to privilege or poverty, for example, how far we live from health care and good schools. And we know it is true, too, for the natural environment, as seas rise with climate change and storms grow stronger. It is also true for archives that are physical entities: the risk to their survival depends on geography, including what political system the archival institution exists within. In the face of unsettling events and tenuous times, archivists need to consider carefully whether the geography where they live will put the holdings at risk or will contribute to their safety.


Commentary, The DNA Dilemma for Archives

Ostraka aren’t pretty, but in their day were they ever powerful! These little pieces of pottery were used by a citizen (male, free man) of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. to vote on the person in the city that he wished to be expelled. After these ballots were counted, they were thrown away. While we think of ostraka as objects (from which the English word “ostracize” is derived), they are documents: they have a base (pottery), an impression on the base (a name scratched on it manually) and convey information (he’s the one I want out of here).

 Archives usually have associated objects that don’t meet the criteria of a document: a glove in a court case file, a model in a patent application, a lock of hair among a set of personal papers. But some associated objects, like ostraka, have the characteristics of a document. Human rights investigators at sites of bombings may find pieces of weaponry with identifying numbers on them. These show maker and model: conveying information over space and time, on a metal base with an impression made by mechanical casting when the weapon was produced. These fragments alone they don’t tell us who used weapon, just as ostraka do not tell us if the person named was actually expelled, but they have evidentiary value.

 Smaller and even mightier than ostraka, DNA samples amplify the power of small material. Clearly the result of the analysis of a DNA sample is a document, whether recorded in a database or on a spreadsheet or in a report. But what of the sample itself? The language of DNA analysis talks about “reading” the DNA, and the elements of the DNA are chemical bases (a different sense of the same word archivists use to describe a document). DNA certainly conveys information over space and time, but there is no “impression on the base” as the classic definition of a document requires: the information is encoded within the DNA by natural process. In other words, DNA conveys information, but in an entirely different way than a document in archival terms. If, then, the DNA sample is an “associated object” but not a document, the sample is unlikely to be covered by institutional regulations for deciding whether or not to retain it. This question is not trivial: a recent investigation using DNA in the Netherlands found a Dutch prosecutor ordering the “voluntary sampling of up to 21,500 Dutchmen based on familial profiling, and the obligatory sampling of 1,500 men of special interest to the case,” the New York Times reported.  The results of these analyses are records of the prosecution, to be disposed of in accordance with Dutch rules, but what should happen to the samples?

 This is an extreme case, of course; in a more usual situation there would be one or more samples and an analytic report. If the sample is destroyed, it would be impossible to re-examine the DNA for possible use in a future review of evidence. One option is to preserve the DNA and the data that links the sample to the analysis as long as the person can be presumed alive, perhaps adding a few decades as a margin. But is that long enough for scientific researchers looking at populations for genetic characteristics (see, for example, the ALS item under United States below)? Is it long enough to satisfy the interests of people tracing their heritage, both for family history and for medical information?

 If archives need to hold DNA samples for extended periods of times, along with the analysis and the metadata linking the two (for example, a table linking the number on the sample’s vial to the report and the person), are archives equipped—physically and technically—to do this?  Unlike the ostraka which, like most baked pottery, are virtually indestructible, DNA samples are susceptible to all the deterioration of a body. Any archives that is the potential recipient of DNA materials needs to think now about its decisions on retention of DNA samples and its capacities for the care of this small, powerful evidence.

Commentary, Coincidence, correlation, causation, and records of courts

Coincidence, correlation, causation. Within 16 days of each other in late May and early June, Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba’s conviction was overturned on appeal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and four former senior military officers in Guatemala were convicted of crimes against humanity. That was a coincidence. Both court decisions created political upheavals in the countries involved. Whether that is correlation or causation is more complicated.

Despite a voluminous case file and a conviction in the lower court, on June 8 the ICC appeals judges, by a 3-2 decision, overturned Bemba’s 2016 conviction for war crimes in the Central African Republic. He flew back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on August 1, to be greeted by “throngs of people—many in T-shirts, hats and scarves bearing his likeness,” according to Reuters. Bemba quickly followed his “thunderous welcome” (as African Arguments reported) by filing to run for president in the election scheduled for December. The DRC constitution sets a limit of two terms for the president, which expired in 2016 for the current president, Joseph Kabila, but he did not step down. At Bemba’s return, his supporters chanted, “Kabila, know that Bemba is back,” and “hours before the deadline to register candidates,” Kabila’s party announced that its presidential candidate would be Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who is under European Union sanctions for his role in the crackdown on protests in 2016 when Kabila did not depart. In addition to Bemba, more than a dozen other men have filed to run for president. But is there a correlation—that is, a relationship between two or more things—between Bemba’s triumphant return and Kabila’s decision to step aside?

Bemba appears to be favored to win the election. African Arguments called him “a deeply flawed candidate,” but urged the public to “get behind Bemba,” because “a rough and muddy diamond is more valuable than certain despair.” Bemba has spent the last ten years at the ICC, and as Olivia Bueno pointed out in an opinion piece for the Open Society Justice Initiative, most Congolese “never believed in Bemba’s guilt.” With the court sitting far away and most of the public unable to see the hearings, understand the language of the court (physical and legal), hear the witnesses, read the transcript or review the evidence, the process lacked credibility to the Congolese voter. The record is there, but it is distant. Until international courts figure out how to share their proceedings with the affected populace (there is substantial literature on court “outreach” problems) and court archives begin providing more of the evidence on line, judging the actions of a man like Bemba and weighing his suitability to be your president will be based on serious information gaps.;;

Unlike the distant Bemba trial, the Molina Theissen case dominated Guatemala news during its three-month trial and unanimous May 23 verdict. Again, the trial record is enormous--even the court’s judgment ran to 1,075 pages. As Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada wrote in a three-part examination of the judgment, “Official military documents, international treaties, and domestic jurisprudence were fundamental to the court’s determination,” and the judges “referred to convictions handed down by Guatemalan courts for the enforced disappearance of Fernando Garcia and Edgar Enrique Saenz Calito, the Spanish Embassy massacre, the Maya Ixil genocide, and the sexual violence and sexual and domestic slavery against Maya Q’eqchi women in Sepur Zarco, among others.”

The consequences of the judgment came quickly. As gAZeta pointed out, in the Garcia and especially the Molina Theissen case, documents from Guatemala’s Historical Archives of the National Police (AHPN) were used by prosecutors to show that the victims were detained by police who handed them over to military units: “conclusive documentary evidence.” Many former members of the military and police units active during Guatemala’s long and bloody civil war are today overt or covert powers in the government. They don’t like the possibility that existing documentation could be used against them in some future public process. So, it is perhaps neither coincidence or correlation but cause that, following the Molina Theissen trial and with more cases hovering in the future, the police archives was removed from the oversight of the national archives (Archivo General de Centroamerica) and reassigned to the vice minister of culture for “Patrimonio,” and the founding executive director of the police archives, Gustavo Meoño, was informed that his contract (which expired on July 31) would not be renewed. One of the most puzzling elements of the changes is the assignment of a member of the Guatemala office of the United Nations Development Program to be the director of AHPN. Neither of these newly responsible persons is known to have archival experience. The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia wrote to his social network that the changes were “a strategy to silence the archive,” a statement that was subsequently removed from the posting but had already been picked up by the press. 

In the wake of these events, a group of individuals and nongovernmental organizations created a petition, asking questions about the situation and demanding a guarantee that the police archives will be preserved and continue to be open for use by institutions, organizations and individuals, and that the investigations undertaken by the archives’ staff will continue. The petition, open for signature, is an annex to this issue. The U.S. nongovernmental organization National Security Archive is collecting institutional and individual signatures to be forwarded to Archives without Borders, which will coordinate the international response and the presentation of the petition to the responsible officials. ;; ;;

Commentary, Special courts and the archival ingredient

Quincy Wright was an early 20th century U.S. international law scholar. During World War I, as he thought about a possible League to Enforce the Peace, he told his father that such a League should have, as a slogan, “for political questions, conference rather than coup. For legal questions, court rather than correspondence (italics in original, quoted by Daniel Gorman in “International Law and the International Thought of Quincy Wright, 1918-1945,” Diplomatic History 41:2 (2017), 336-61.)

Wright was referring to the discussions on establishing an international court for the “peaceful settlement of international disputes,” which was created in 1920 as the Permanent Court of International Justice. Nations today have taken to heart the idea of court to enforce peace within the polity and strikingly often are creating special courts to handle certain kinds of cases. In May Sri Lanka created a special court to hear corruption cases; in June Ukraine established what it termed an “anti-corruption” court. Also in June, the Central African Republic created a special criminal court to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, while Columbia’s Congress passed a “final” law on the courts known as the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” (see below for citations). The new courts, like the then-new Permanent Court of International Justice, have an immediate, acute need for good archival operations. No court can legitimately judge without evidence, and the prosecutors and the defence counsel equally need good record-keeping systems to litigate cases successfully, whether in a civil or common law system or in a blend of both.

Further, when the court is closing, the judges, the registrar, the prosecutors, and the defense need to know—or establish—what will happen to the records. In June the prosecutor at the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh, a special court trying cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during the 1971 Bangladesh independence war, turned over four case files to the national archives. These records, like those produced by special courts everywhere, are highly politically sensitive and require robust security. After all, special courts are set up to handle unusually difficult cases, and it can be in the interests of parties—whether winning or losing—to have at least some of the evidence disappear. Prosecutors in these special jurisdictions acquire much more evidence than they ultimately use, choosing whom to prosecute and which charges to bring. Access to the accumulated prosecutorial records requires careful archival review and informed consideration of the consequences of the release of records not ultimately used in court, as well as the records that were sealed by the court itself. (This is also true for the temporary international tribunals, such as those that judged genocide cases in Rwanda and the Balkans, where the prosecutorial records are vast and the court records contain sealed sections.)

The creation of special courts illustrates the caboose nature of archives: archivists do not drive the establishment of establish special courts, but once established, archives must deal with the records: courtroom transcripts, evidence, audiovisual products, records of prosecutors, chambers, registry, witness protection, and the deliberations of judges (see, for example, the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on the records of its deliberations in HRWG News 2018-05). And archivists usually have no say in whether the records are sent to the national archives, to the archives of the regular court system, or to a special body for at least a temporary period. But as the train of litigation moves forward, archivists must be along for the ride.

Commentary, Faith, conflict and archives

With a wave of her wand Circe turned Odysseus’s sailors into pigs—at least, that’s what Homer told us. Circe was a witch.

Witches are having a moment in the spotlight right now. U.S. President Trump regularly calls the investigation into Russian actions in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections a “witch hunt.” Any number of men accused of sexual harassment claim to be the victim of a “witch hunt.” A law firm in England is accused of conducting a “witch hunt” against British troops who served in Iraq. Check today’s news feeds and see how many references you find.

While the figure of speech is common, it hides the real problem of harm caused to people today accused of witchcraft. In 2009, Gambia’s leader “ordered security forces to round up hundreds of ‘sorcerers’” and over the next seven years, victims told the Washington Post, “armed soldiers targeted poor, elderly farmers, forcing them to drink a hallucinogenic liquid before pressuring them into confessing to murders by sorcery,” leading to “a pattern of kidnappings, beatings and forced confessions that have had lasting health implications for survivors and resulted in several deaths.”   In Cameroon, where the health ministry estimates that sickle-cell disease is responsible for 16% of all deaths of children under five, Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed 19 people with sickle-cell disease, of whom “16 said they were called ‘sorcerers’ and ‘devils’ as children, abandoned by their fathers and subjected to ‘demystification rituals’ that could have killed them.” A woman who murdered her 5-year-old son stricken with sickle-cell disease said she was told by traditional healers that he was a sorcerer who “came into the world to torture you.”     

The reality is that the ancient belief in witches has never gone away, and European pagan traditions have had a renaissance in the latter half of the 20th century as Wicca, a decentralized religion. Prejudices against witches are akin to the religious racism found in persecutions of one or another faith-based group in every geographical location. Mosques are attacked in the U.S.; a synagogue in Sweden was attacked in 2017; in May a family of suicide bombers attacked Christian churches in Indonesia killing 13 and injuring dozens; a church was attacked in the Central African Republic and in retaliation a mosque was burned; Hindus who were attacked in Pakistan in turn attacked Sikhs; Buddhists attacked Muslims in Sri Lanka: the list goes on and on, not to mention intra-faith conflicts such as that between Sunni and Shia.

While these may be actions by private groups, governments are also complicit. In 2014, the nongovernmental Pew Research Centre found that 18 of the 20 countries of the Middle East and North Africa criminalize blasphemy (lacking reverence for the sacred) and 14 criminalize apostasy (abandoning faith), with legal punishments ranging from fines to death. The persecution of Baha’i adherents in Iran was the subject of a February 2018 protest to the government by international legal experts (see HRWG News 2018-02).  In Russia in May, Jehovah’s Witness homes were targeted in 28 new raids leading to “detentions, house arrest, travel restrictions, and criminal charges.”   Also last month the Supreme Court in Chad required government members to be sworn in on either the Koran or the Bible, and when one non-Muslim refused to swear on the Bible the Supreme Court fired him.

With this destruction of persons and places comes destruction of the records of faith. Archival associations seem to know very little about the preservation of faith-based records other than those of Christian and Jewish groups. A quick review of the 590 members of the Society of American Archivists’ Section of Religious Collections turned up only a few members representing Jewish institutions and one Baha’i, while of the 74 members of the International Council on Archives’ Section of Archives of Faith Traditions (where it is much more difficult to identify representation), the overwhelming majority of members represent Christian groups. And yet we know all faith-based organizations and schools and fellowship bodies keep records, of adherents and rituals and rites. How are the records of these bodies preserved? What condition are they in? The professional associations appear not to know. As important as faith is to human society and as much conflict as it sparks, surely we must make sure that the evidences of those faith activities are well and truly preserved, just as we must make sure that the records of religious persecution are available for justice measures.

Meanwhile, I am taking a good look at pigs. You never know: one might turn out to be a sailor.

Commentary, The New York Times and the ISIS Files

The New York Times obtained 15,000 internal Islamic State (IS) documents, including at least two CD-ROMs, from recent battle sites in Iraq, mainly around Mosul. Some came from offices, others from store rooms or abandoned briefcases. The journalist got the materials during five trips to Iraq in a little over a year. She said her team “lifted up the mattresses and pulled back the headboards of beds,” “rifled through the closets, opened kitchen cupboards, followed the stairs to the roof and scanned the grounds.” As a rationale for taking the materials, she wrote, “Iraqi security forces nearly always accompanied our team. They led the way and gave permission to take the documents. In time, the troops escorting us became our sources and they, in turn, shared what they found, augmenting our cache by hundreds of records.”


After the Times article on the “ISIS Files” appeared, Al Jazeera published an opinion piece by Iraq writer Sinan Antoon headlined “How the NYT partook in the plunder of Iraq.” He argued that the documents belong to Iraqis: “Why have they been deprived of troves of documents containing evidence of crimes committed against them?”


This is a complicated archival fact situation. Whose documents are these? Who had the authority to give them away? What use will be made of them? What are the interests in the long term disposition of the records? To whose history do they belong?


What are they? The Times says the materials are all IS documents. If the files are ones that IS officially used and abandoned as they retreated, the records are abandoned property. Yet if the team was indeed in bedrooms and kitchens, it seems reasonable to assume that some of the items are personal papers, not IS files. Given the haste in which the team was working, it seems likely that the personal materials were not discovered until the documents were reviewed later in New York.


Who had the authority to give them to the Times?  Under common law in the United States, anyone can take abandoned property. The Times journalists probably were operating under this assumption. I do not know whether Iraqi law covers abandoned property or, if it does, what it says.


Under the laws of war, an occupying power (in this case a power recovering its territory) can take over the records of the previous government to be used for specific purposes, particularly to keep the government services running. (For useful background, see Douglas Cox, “Archives & Records in Armed Conflict: International Law and the Current Debate over Iraqi Records and Archives,” 59 Catholic University Law Review 1001–1056 (2010)). The New York Times says that some of the documents it found are records of land seizures and property transactions, which will surely be needed to resolve claims as the Iraqi government re-establishes control over the area. These materials, valuable for the continued business of government, would be incorporated into the records of the Iraqi government and therefore the Iraqi government rules of property (including records) would control their disposal. And the security forces must have understood that these materials could be used in trials of IS participants.


And, under the laws of war, invading troops may not loot.


The security forces that accompanied the Times team should have known the laws of war and Iraq’s laws on abandoned property and government property. As officials of the Iraqi government, the security forces lacked authority to give away the materials.


The personal papers that persons abandoned in distress but now could return and hope to find are only temporarily abandoned (I run out of my burning house but come back later for my possessions). Not truly “abandoned,” they should not be converted to a finder’s corporate or personal property.


What use could be made of them?  The original Times story did not say what it plans to do with the materials, but a later version said, “The New York Times is working to make the trove of ISIS documents publicly available to researchers, scholars, Iraqi officials and anyone else looking to better understand the Islamic State.” It probably has already made copies that are in the hands of members of its translation and analysis team, at least one of whom is at a major university. So no matter what it does with the original materials it brought out of Iraq, copies will likely exist at the Times and other institutions and will be available for research.


The IS materials would be useful for prosecution of IS leaders. The Iraqi High Tribunal was created to try persons responsible for grave human rights violations committed in Iraq between 1968 and 2003. Its mandate could be extended to cover IS leaders. However, what is happening now in Iraq seems to be swift trials in local courts for the captured IS fighters and little justice for victims (;; ). These 20-minute trials are reported to rely on confessions not documents. Whether a captured IS leader would be tried for more comprehensive crimes and whether documents would be used in the trial are simply unknowns. Iraq is not a party to the International Criminal Court, so unless the UN authorizes the Court to take up these cases, that is not an option. A special tribunal could be created by the UN, but that also seems unlikely, for reasons of cost if not political disagreements in the Security Council.


Whose history?  The destruction wrought by IS in Iraq is catastrophic. The records of the way the country was administered and the violence against the population are an essential part of Iraq’s history. They need to be returned to Iraq. If they are personal papers or private business records swept up in the process, they are personal history and should be returned to the person or family or business owner, not to the government.


What should happen next?  Access to the materials is one question. The official IS records arguably can be made public, as land records and records of civil administration usually are; however, if there are police records in the cache, they should be reviewed for the privacy of individuals other than the IS official acting in their official capacities. Any personal papers or private business records among the materials (and in the copies of them) should not be made public by the Times or by those having custody of copies. Unravelling ownership and getting informed consent to use the documents may be--will be--difficult, but a good faith effort should be made to do so.


Deciding when and to whom to return the materials is a second important step. Iraq has a functioning national archives; however, if the IS materials are to be used in criminal cases the judicial or prosecutorial archives would need to be strong and stable enough to handle these sensitive records. The International Council on Archives’ Working Document “Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists and Records Managers in Support of Human Rights” says, in Principle 18:

Institutions and archivists should cooperate with institutions and individuals in other countries to manage and settle claims about disputed displaced archives in a spirit of fairness and mutual respect. If returning displaced archives is likely to risk their destruction, their use for repressive purposes, or will place at risk persons whose actions are reflected in the archives, return should be postponed.

Until an appropriate, secure Iraqi institution is identified to receive the materials, postponement is a reasonable choice. During that interim, however, the materials should be held by a neutral party in a safe haven repository.


In summary:

            *The original materials should be moved from the Times to a safe haven repository of a neutral party.

            *The copies of the materials held by the Times should be reviewed and any personal papers or private business records separated from IS official records.

            *The Times should employ an experienced privacy reviewer to determine which if any of the IS materials have information that must be protected on grounds of individual privacy.

            *The Times should ensure that the copies held by other parties are treated in the same way.

            *The Times, working through the safe haven, should return the IS records to a repository designated by the government of Iraq.

*The Times or a designated arbiter should determine the owners of any personal papers or private business records and return them to owners.

*The owners of the private materials should be given the choice of making available the copies of their papers in the institutions holding them; having the copies destroyed; or asking that the copies be withheld from public use for a period of years or until a specific event happens (such as the completion of a trial).

Commentary, Borders and fences: Keeping in and keeping our

Borders and edges, boundaries and walls and fences: they simultaneously keep out and keep in. On a farm, for instance, the yell, “The cattle are out!” means everyone rushes to round up the animals and get them back safely inside the fence where they belong—that is, keep them in. Or think of the Iron Curtain, which was erected to keep in, for example, the East Germans who might have strayed to the West. Then there is the fence that keeps out: your neighbor’s dog does not come in and jump on your toddler; the U.S. president wants to build a wall to keep Central Americans from entering the U.S.


Borders featured in disputes in March. Bolivia brought a case against Chile at the International Court of Justice, trying to “reclaim its coastal territory from Chile” to gain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost in the 1904 peace treaty that ended the 19th century War of the Pacific. Landlocked, Bolivia wants the court to order Chile to “negotiate in good will” over access to the sea because the 1904 treaty was “signed under duress.” In the early 1970s the two countries, both under dictatorships, worked together in Plan Condor, the South American states’ coordinated hunt to eliminate anyone linked to left-wing ideas. In 1975 Chile entered into negotiations with Bolivia and proposed an exchange of territory that would give Bolivia a corridor to the sea, but the negotiations broke down and the two governments have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1978. The attitudes of the people living in the proposed area whose citizenship would change from Chilean to Bolivian do not seem to be part of either state’s argument.; ;


Across the Pacific, Australia and Timor-Leste signed a treaty, mediated by a commission established under the UN convention on the Law of the Sea, defining the permanent maritime boundary between them. The border was seen by Timor-Leste as an issue of sovereignty, while Australia “sought a boundary that was aligned with its continental shelf.” The basic question, however, was the exploitation of the oil and gas fields between the two countries and the associated pipeline and processing plants. In the background was the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty that was signed between Australia and Indonesia, while Timor-Leste was still ruled by Jakarta, and the 1972 “continental shelf boundary” agreement between them. Timor-Leste has yet to reach an agreement with Indonesia on its maritime boundaries, and Timor-Leste’s petroleum minister said those negotiations could be “complicated.”;


In Europe, Kosovo’s parliament ratified the border with Montenegro, which the European Union required for Kosovars to gain visa-free travel to the EU states.  Meanwhile, the border disputes in Kashmir, in Ngorno-Karabakh, in Gaza, and in war-torn Syria continue to foster death and despair.


Settling disagreements by international courts or mediation is surely preferable to continued conflict. In preparation for such negotiations, it is helpful if not essential for communities to build “collective territorial viewpoints.” The techniques and resources outlined in the Manual of Collective Mapping: Critical Cartographic Resources for Territorial Processes of Collaborative Creation by the Argentine team of Julia Risler and Pablo Ares are useful tools in such processes.  Whether mapping the location of oil and gas, the route to the sea, or a fence between neighbors, a border line is socially constructed, and its acceptance depends on acknowledging the human rights of people who live on both sides of it. Archives maintain the drawn maps and the treaties, but those documents, important as they are, only recognize the current political reality. It is the intertwined social threads that make a boundary real, even if the cattle do get out.


Commentary, Artificial intelligence and the data that trains it.

In a Russian history class I once took, the émigré professor insisted on a distinction between intellectuals and intelligentsia. Intelligentsia, he said, were people with education, but what distinguished them was their status as a group possessing influence in society. Intellectuals, on the other hand, were, well, just smart.

 Artificial intelligence is all over today’s news.  It combines the professor’s two definitions: it is smart (it has a huge memory, it makes decisions based on its memory) but the way it is smart reflects the social class of the people who had the power to build it. Just look at two examples: 

*Researchers in the U.S. found that “three commercially released facial-analysis programs from major technology companies demonstrate both skin-type and gender biases.” In a set of photos, the artificial intelligence programs correctly identified white males as white males more than 99% or the time, but only 65% of the time correctly identified darker-skinned females. The probable reason: the data set used to “teach” the artificial intelligence was heavily male and white. 

*Human Rights Watch reported that authorities in China’s Xinjiang province are using big data analysis for a “predictive policing” program which “aggregates data about people—often without their knowledge.” The data is gathered from an enormous variety of sources, ranging from surveillance cameras to “wifi sniffers” to information obtained during home visits. Persons have been detained because the software identified them as potential threats. 

Advocates argue that artificial intelligence algorithms can successfully take on questions as varied as identifying depression in people by analysis of facial expressions, reducing snarls in urban transport, pinpointing crime hotspots and upgrading slums.  Medical researchers are rapidly adopting artificial intelligence tools, as a look at any recent issue of HRWG News will show. 

Artificial intelligence relies on information, both the type of data selected to “teach” the programs and the data against which the programs run. And artificial intelligence produces information, such as when to arrest people in Xinjiang or to treat an illness. Archivists must be involved both in ensuring that the inputs are reliable data and in preserving the results. We have to get this right: people’s lives literally depend on it.

Commentary, DNA tests as records of identity

Did you read the article about the twins, both boys, born 4 minutes apart, one of whom is a U.S. citizen and one is not? If not, here is a summary: A legally married male same-sex couple, one with dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship and the other an Israeli citizen, were living in Canada. Wanting children, they combined an anonymous donor’s eggs with the sperm of the two men, and a surrogate “carried and delivered” their twins 16 months ago in Canada. The couple decided to move to California, so they went to the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to get U.S. passports for their sons, bringing their marriage certificate and the twins’ birth certificates. The consular official said the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act requires “a blood relationship between a child and the U.S. citizen parent in order for the parent to transmit U.S. citizenship” and told the U.S. citizen that he “would have to undergo a DNA test to prove a biological link to each twin,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The results of the test showed that one of the twins is the biological son of the U.S. citizen and the other is the biological son of the Israeli citizen. Armed with that information, the U.S. issued a U.S. passport to one twin and denied the other. The couple, now living in California, are suing the U.S. government.

Think for a minute of the number of babies who may have been conceived outside a verified system of parentage: for example, heterosexual couples who use assisted reproduction in a foreign country; the non-citizen wife who has an affair with another non-citizen but whose husband is a citizen (laws in many jurisdictions presume a husband is the father of his wife’s children). The possibilities are, today, quite endless. In the past, would any consular official or registrar even think of asking for documentation of biological parentage? But now, because DNA tests are common, a new element has arisen: the record of DNA testing.

Archivists have long argued that knowing your past is an important element in a healthy life, whether of the person or the nation. Records of DNA tests challenge that assertion. People who take a DNA test learn the scientific makeup of the genes they carry, and testing companies will provide a list of countries or regions where the predominant genetic traits match their genetic makeup. As the Washington Post recently reported, surprising DNA test results elicit “a range of emotions,” from joy to curiosity to denial.  The ability to “reverse engineer” the DNA of the dead (see “medical records” below), the ambitious project of the World Economic Forum to create a databank of DNA of all living things (same section) and the Guatemala project to create a national DNA bank (“Guatemala” below) mean that the unsettling of personal assumptions of “who I am” is sure to continue. And as archives, like that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, begin to manage quantities of DNA records, archivists will continue to be central to the stories of genetics and geography that people tell about themselves and their families.

Commentary, 2017 in Review

 As we start a new year and look back on the tumult of the one just past, here are items from each month of HRWG News in 2017 that, taken together, illustrate the diversity of human rights issues that include archives.  Best wishes for the year ahead!

January.  Investigators are using archives at the Max Planck Institute in Germany to “find and purge it of human brain tissue removed from victims murdered” during Nazi medical and euthanasia programs.

February.  The Prosecutor General in Colombia charged around 200 local and international companies for crimes against humanity.

March.  Two Swedish nongovernmental organizations used public records of seven banks for a report on the role of banks in the crisis faced by Borneo’s indigenous peoples and their forests.

April.  In Kashmir, a video of a man tied “to the front of a jeep as a human shield” led police to file a case against the army perpetrators.

May.  The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued “updated guidelines for investigating unlawful killings around the world.”

June.  World second cousins “have lower test scores, lower height-for-age, and a higher likelihood of being severely stunted.”

July.  Near the Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS allegedly burned the biggest archives of its documents and data.

August.  A campaign in Afghanistan is urging that a mother’s name be recorded on her child’s birth certificate.

September.  Some 60 persons in India have been killed after using the Right to Information Act to gain access to government documents and at least 300 “have been harassed or physically hurt.”

October.  After the International Criminal Court issued its first ever arrest warrant solely based on social media evidence, accusing Libyan army commander Werfalli of mass executions near Benghazi, Libya, bellingcat, an online investigation team, used crowdsourcing to “geolocate” four of the seven locations shown on the social media video as sites where assassinations occurred.

November.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first pill embedded with a sensor that can alert a patient’s physician or caregiver.

December.  China’s “Population Registration Program” is collecting biometric data from all residents in Xinjiang province between the ages of 12 and 65.