Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

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.