Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Archives under threat in Argentina, Bolivia, Hungary, Japan and Russia.

The Human Rights Working Group of the International Council on Archives has been closely following reports of threats to archives in Argentina, Bolivia, Hungary, Japan and Russia.

In December 2016 the Government of Argentina issued Modernization decree No. 44/16, transferring the responsibility for appraisal away from the national archivist and to the directors of government agencies.  This took the crucial decision-making power out of the hands of the professional archivists who are trained to judge what documents must be preserved as constituent parts of that nation’s documentary heritage. Fortunately, after protests by many people and organizations, the government repealed the transfer of authority and reaffirmed the role of the national archives. Now the authority of the national archives should be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that it can effectively identify, appraise, and accession not only paper records but also the growing mass of Argentine government digital records.

The Centro de Documentatcion e Informacion Bolivia (CEDIB), begun in 1970, has been based at the state University Mayor de San Simon since 1993. In 2012 its document and news archive was declared “Documentary Heritage of the city of Cochabamba.” In March CEDIB was told by a notarized letter from the university’s rector that it had to leave in two days, reported the Guardian, because “a Chinese institute must be installed here immediately.” The CEDIB website says, “We are in the need to move our Archive and Library, which is 45 years old and has systematized more than 11 million news items, 60 thousand books and other documents on the recent history of Bolivia.” The CEDIB’s director said, “It’s a trove of historical evidence to which members of the general public can turn to if they need to know things involving them, particularly those concerning human rights. For example, using a CEDIB dossier, victims of the dictatorships were able to back-up their demands for reparation from the state.” ;

In Hungary the Open Society Archives is part of Central European University, which is the focus of a new law that targets it for critical changes if not complete closure. On April 26, the European Commission, “on the basis of an in-depth legal assessment of the Hungarian Higher Education Law of 4 April” said “the law is not compatible with the fundamental internal market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment but also with the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the Union's legal obligations under international trade law.” The Hungarian Government has one month to respond to these concerns. The Archives holds a wide variety of records and personal papers related to human rights and the rule of law; what would happen to the holdings in the event of a temporary or permanent closure is of great concern. Ironically, the Archives, now threatened, has been seen as a safe haven for important materials from the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Two events caused concern in Japan. In early April The Mainichi reported that the Chiba Prefectural Archives “discarded about 500 volumes of documents related to World War II, including names of the war dead and registry data of bereaved families.” After protests by “groups specializing in history” the disposal work has been halted and the archives is reconsidering the selection process. The same newspaper next reported that government ministries are said to be preparing to destroy documents designated as “special state secrets.” The Public Records and Archives Management Act covers documents that include special state secrets; they “can be disposed of after they undergo checks by the Cabinet Office once their storage term is up.” It is not clear that the Cabinet Office is checking to see that records designated as permanent are not being destroyed; the National Archives apparently has no oversight role. “However, according to implementation guidelines of the State Secrecy Law--or the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets--documents that have been around for over 30 years after the information they contain was designated special state secrets are considered highly important, and must all be transferred to the National Archives of Japan and elsewhere for storage.”;

Finally, in Russia “a curator at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has claimed that government authorities have seized archives and books . . related to the Soviet’s sale of art nationalized after the Bolshevik Revolution to Western collectors.” In a Facebook posting he wrote that archives have been taken not only from the Hermitage but “similar operations have taken place at the State Historical Museum and State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.” The Hermitage and the Pushkin denied the allegation.

These worrisome cases are simply the ones that have made the press in recent days. The Human Rights Working Group knows that more archives in all parts of the world are under pressure. Only constant watchfulness, as occurred in Argentina and Japan, can protect our vital archival heritage.