Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

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have, or will get, a visa or that you will [be] permitted to enter the U.S.” In April the visa of the ICC prosecutor was revoked; the ICC judges decided to deny the Prosecutor’s request to open an investigation.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.