Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

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.”