What are the new challenges and opportunities for human rights archivists?

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What are the new challenges and opportunities for human rights archivists?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:

  • How are human rights archives grappling with challenges associated with citizen documentation, mobile and social media, live/real-time content, and other new and dynamic digital media?
  • What strategies and practices do you use for managing records or materials with security restrictions?
  • How do access decisions get made when a collective right to know conflicts with an individual’s right to privacy? [Example: Guatemalan Police Archive online…]
  • What are the biggest gaps and challenges currently facing human rights archives/archiving, and what ideas or steps might be taken to address them?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

The challenge of formats for posterity

T.E.D videos and digital archiving is a blog post I wrote that deals with, inter alia, what I feel is a central challenge for archivists of digital information: 

Which brings us to a central challenge of ICT4Peace in particular, but also of digital archiving in general – how do we ensure that the knowledge we increasingly capture digitally is stored, without data loss, for posterity?Given the perishable nature of the file formats and storage media we have today, and the inability, to date, to fashion a digital technology as long lasting under adverse conditions as parchment or manuscript papers, this is a very real problem that many leading libraries around the world are grappling with.

The Challenge of Preserving the Digital

Sanjana's point of digital obsolescence and the potential loss of information is a challenge I am very interested to know about with respect to organizations like WITNESS and B'Tselem.  What are organizations with what I assume to be large A/V media collections doing or using to preserve their archives?  (What digital preservation strategies or policies do you have in place and/or what technologies are you using to overcome the anticipated challenge of migrating or transferring information to different media over time?)  Maybe even the folks at Benetech have ideas or tools that tackle this particular problem for archivists or organizations attempting to preserve information or records.  I realize that this topic may be addressed in the thread regarding sharing resources, but Sanjana's message brought these questions to mind.

Aileen R. Cornelio

Preservation Strategies

We employ a number of strategies to mitigate data loss and preserve our video collection, which is comprised on both tape- and file-based media, although our situation far from perfect. There are many others that we would like to have in place -- most notably maintaining a geographically separate copy of the collection -- but lack the resources to put into practice.

Our strategies include keeping camera original tapes and files, even when they have been digitized or re-formatted for use or preservation. This is important for authenticity of course, and ensures that important metadata is not lost. Most of our videotapes have in fact not been digitized, however, because we do not have the resources to do so.

We store tapes in a climate controlled vault on-site, and our master files on a SAN (with RAID 5 redundancy). Currently, due to volume (approx 32 TB), the SAN is not backed up onto another medium. We have been working on setting up an LTO data tape back up system, but this is not yet in place.

We run MD5 checksums on our digital video files once a month. This practice enables us to detect data corruption, but of course cannot prevent errors from occurring. We also run checksums whenever we transfer files to our secondary NAS storage to ensure there are no errors in the transmission.

In terms of longer term preservation, we've been very fortunate to have partnered with the Human Rights Documentation Initiative at the University of Texas-Austin (T-Kay Sangwand, one of the featured practitioners in this dialogue, is the archivist behind this amazing team). Over time, we will be depositing digital master copies of our videos to the UTL repository.

This is just a short overview but I'd be happy to elaborate on any of these strategies throughout our dialogue. I would be very interested to hear how others are meeting this challenge as well.

B'Tselem employs several

B'Tselem employs several techniques to surmount the challenge of digital preservation. They seem quite similar to the ones described by Miss Ng of Witness, but perhaps on a smaller scale.
We mostly store tape and file-based video. As of  2009 we have mostly used memory card cameras, and the majority of our video archive content is now comprised of the resulting footage. Our video is also kept in an SAN system (with RAID). Recently we started backing up a large portion of the data on LTO tapes.  We have over 3,000 hours of footage (and counting) so we try to back these up as much as we can – though cannot back up everything due to resources limitations.  Original hard copy tapes are stored in a physical archive of their own, with no special preservation conditions (almost all of them have also been digitized).
For various practical reasons, we keep an additional MOV version for every digitized video clip, so that in fact we have two copies of the footage stored in different locations.
Our video department is a relatively small part of the organization, and mostly comprised of three documentary filmmakers There are currently no resources available for an archivist position – and I manage the archive (with the support of an IT technician) in addition to other numerous video tasks. However, we still succeed in maintaining an active and functioning video archive that answers most of our needs.
On a final note - preserving video footage is an important part of human rights work, and I would like to raise an issue for discussion: How do small organizations-  many even smaller than B'Tselem - with limited resources, which are devoted to video, manage to keep their archives functional and up-to-date? Are there efficient and accessible data resources or organizations that offer guidance to small organizations on how to keep and preserve small video/media archives?

I am not sure if this is a suitable question for this thread. If not, perhaps someone could suggest a more appropriate thread where I might raise this issue.


Hi Lior

Kudos to you for all that you've accomplished with limited staffing and resources! I believe you actually manage more digital content than we do (we have under 2000 hours of digitized/digital content, not including highly compressed viewing copies that we generate for each video). It would be great to talk to you more about your LTO workflow sometime.

Our department is similarly small, although we are lucky that we are able to support a full-time archivist (me) and Grace, who is WITNESS's Director of Operations and also manages the archive. We're part of a Media Operations team with two video editors/post-production. We also work with an external consultant on a very part-time basis and get support from the organization's IT staff (one person). 

Re: Preservation Strategies

Yvonne's comments above are really instructive, and parallel quite a bit a point I'd like to emphasize: backup, backup, backup. Make copies of your data, store it in several places (whether different disks or servers in various places), refresh the copies frequently so they're not stuck in outdated operating systems or filesystems or failing disks, and make sure that the file format can be read using a tool you update frequently (this applies to the crypto you use, too). What Yvonne described seems to be a pretty solid implementation of a lot of these ideas, and others. In particular the recommendation to run checksums regularly is a fantastic one, especially before copying to new locations or creating new external backups. In addition to MD5, interested users might look into SHA-1, SHA-2 and SHA-3 as alternatives as well.

Also keep in mind that data formats in near ascii or well-documented binary formats (like dbf) can still be read, and they've been around since microcomputing's inception. So if users and archivists keep data in unicode and try not to format things into obscure binary or difficult-to-parse XML, in addition to keeping multiple backups in multiple places (and running regular checks), they'll increase their chances of mitigating any coming file format obsolescence.

Internet Access and the Challenges of the Digital

I want to bring up the issue of digital divides here and ask what might be best to do in areas where the internet has not yet penetrated. Less than one percent of Cambodians have internet access; this is rapidly changing, but in the meantime, what should be the goal of digital human rights projects there? The digitization of Khmer Rouge records by the Documentation Center of Cambodia has had a major impact on raising awareness of the regime’s crimes in the international legal and scholarly communities, and has, to a certain extent, helped Cambodian diaspora populations around the world access this information, but its impact on the average Cambodian has been mostly secondary. However, despite this lack of internet access, many Cambodians have access to cell phones that can take born-digital records of current ongoing abuses.

What tactics should human rights archives take in cases where the internet is not accessible to most people? What is the interplay between access to the internet and access to cellphones and how should archivists deal with this gap?

Existing project models?

Thanks for bringing up this point, Michelle. Do you know of any use cases in which cell phones provide the primary access point to human rights archives? Our partner, the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM) in Rwanda, is wrestling with this issue as well. KGM has been collecting video oral history testimonies from survivors, perpetrators, and rescuers and is currently making the material available online, with the help of the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, through the Genocide Archive of Rwanda. While this rich resource is accessible to the world and the Rwandan diaspora with access to internet, it remains completely inaccessible in Rwanda as the country's technical infrastructure simply cannot support the bandwidth necessary to access streaming video. So, the only way that Rwandans in Rwanda can access the material is to physically visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre. KGM has been considering various access strategies, such as having a mobile / portable version of the archive not reliable on internet access that can travel to different parts of the country. They have also discussed potential cell phone application development with tech folks, but the issue remains unsolved. I am very curious to learn of other projects/models for addressing access across the digital divide.

Cell phone access

Great points, T-Kay! The way that the Documentation Center of Cambodia makes available its records outside of its Phnom Penh office is through a monthly newsletter which publishes select records and stories about survivors. DC-Cam then distributes the newsletter in print free of charge through local town governments and religious institutions. It's a bit old-fashioned, but it has worked in terms of uniting people with records and informing them about the current tribunal.

I am really interested in T-Kay's ideas about accessing archives via cell phone devices and have not heard of any other attempts to do this. How might this new delivery mode change they ways people access archival records documenting abuses? What sort of context can archivists provide given this potential new access point? These questions make me excited to be in this field at this time!

This is related to another interesting possibility-- developing cell phone apps to report human rights violations as they occur. A few weeks ago I heard a story on National Public Radio about a cellphone app that was developed to report racial profiling incidents to the Transportation Security Administration as (or very soon after) they were happening. Does anyone know of any similar systematized used of cell phone apps to report violations? 

cell phone apps for HR reporting

Michelle - WITNESS has been working the Guardian Project on a suite of mobile apps for human rights, collectively called Secure Smart Cam (SSC).  One element is InformaCam which will enable metadata application to video or photos, both automated and manual (consent, intent)and encrypted upload to a secure repository.  The Intl Bar Assn is also a partner; the primary goal is to support the use of cell video/images as evidence.  I believe the Committee to Protect Journalists also has an app in development, more focused on citizen journalists, but with much similarity.    I'd love to hear about other tools or specific instances of mobile documentation projects as well.

SSC details here: http://blog.witness.org/2012/02/introducing-informacam-the-next-release-...


Wow, Grace, InformaCam seems

Wow, Grace, InformaCam seems great. Thanks for posting that link.  It returns us to some important issues discussed so far: the importance of metadata and description, the need to create ways for these cell phone generated records to be credible as evidence in a court of law, and also the issue that James brought up about archivists being activists. Clearly having archivists involved in the creation of this tool shows we are not just passive custodians but active participants.

Has Witness collected any records yet using it? How do you go about educating people on the ground to know that this tool is available?

InformaCam etc

It is still in development & not yet tested -  testing should happen within the next few months.  Likewise outreach and training.  And there is the repository issue too; to my knowledge IBA is building one for their own investigations but for broader deployment there will need to be others.  The idea, as well, is to create a reference model for other developers / tech companies to adopt.

BTW, the other part of SSC is ObscuraCam which deals with obscuring visual identities, which can be critical in visual HR documentation.  The idea is that the apps can work in concert, so that anonymity can be maintained without necessarily losing descriptive information.

It's funny, actually, because after 20+ years of trying to get peoplw to care about metadata - they finally get it! :)

Cell phone used


That implies that people can read.

Taking virtual exhibitions offline

We don't use cell phones to address digital divide issues in our archival outreach work here at the South African History Archive but what we have developed is the ability to take a version of our virtual exhibitions offline quickly and easily so that we can distribute them on CD, often along with related publications, to communities with no / low internet connectivity. (By virtual exhibitions, I mean selections of materials from our collections, pulled through from our main site in a separate sub-site, then organised thematically, often in conjunction with commemorative events - for example, see our VE's on the United Democratic Front and the End Conscription Campaign)

For example, the virtual exhibition we've been working on recently relates to a oral history and documentation project on one of the key South African social movements, the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). Still a work in progress, but we are just about to distribute copies of the project report along with CD copies of the virtual exhibition we've created.so that people (particularly members of the APF and APF affiliates) can access the project archive without internet access. Take a look at http://www.saha.org.za/publications/anti_privatisation_forum.htm for more info.

Not sure if this would be relevant to KGM's work / context..?


Cell phones, crowdsourcing and reportage

This is a great discussion!

I too am intrigued by the use of cell phones for the reporting of human rights violations and am wondering what kind of cross-pollination, if any, is occuring with the rest of the cultural heritage sector, and specifically those who report/tend to at risk materials. I know that the Ushahidi platform has become popular for mapping violence, destruction of monuments, etc., but not sure if this is applicable in this context. Athough it has a web component, the platform crowdsources information using multiple channels, including SMS. Given that more and more people around the world have greater access to cell phones, and not computers, I think that this is an important challenge to take up!

There's an app for that

Thanks for sharing these different strategies and tools, everyone!

Michelle, does DC-Cam make their newsletter available to the public? That would be a great publication for libraries to collect.

Catherine, I'm not sure that the CDs would work in the KGM context as it would still require users to have a computer, but this is a good workaround for the HRDI to keep in mind for other low/no bandwidth situations.

My colleague, Amy Rushing, just alerted me to the cell phone app, Jigsee, that might assist folks in low-bandwitdth context to access streaming content. Has anyone heard of / used this tool? I can't quite tell if one is limited to the media content provided by the app or if users can stream content from any site.

There are several apps (Hollaback, Circle of Six, OnWatch) that have come out in the past few months that are designed to help protect women from sexual harassment and assault and document offenders. It would be interesting to hear from developers and human rights advocates how these types of technologies can be leveraged for use in other human rights related contexts. Of course, these apps presume a more developed technological infrastructure as they are built for iPhones.

While the following tools don't directly relate to human rights archiving, they do touch on some of the themes brought up in this discussion. The Transborder Immigrant Tool is a creative example of how low-tech cell phones can serve human rights purposes both pragmatically and artistically. Pervasive Monuments is an example of mobile technologies can intersect with human rights public history and memorials.

DC-Cam Newsletter

Yes, DC-Cam's newsletter is available in English and Khmer as pdfs online. It's called Searching for the Truth. Also, I know some libraries in the US collect paper copies of it; the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a complete run. If UT-Austin doesn't collect it yet, I would recommend contacting DC-Cam and subscribing.

Use of CDs one element of strategy

The use of CDs to distribute content is simply one element of a dissemination strategy but the advantage is that they cost less to produce to print and can be sent to NGOs, schools, libraries, etc, where there may be public access to shared computers, irrespective of internet connectivity, or maintenance of websites... Even in South Africa, internet penetration (including internet accessed through cell phones) is only just approaching 20% according to a report issued earlier this month (up from previous estimates of around 10%) so a multi-prong strategy is vital.

A comment made elsewhere in this dialogue about the presumption of literacy is also important. In contexts where literacy levels are low (but often orality and multi-lingualism high), the ability to distribute audio / visual materials at low cost is key...

Digital forensics and digital records as evidence

I'd be interested to hear from folks who are studying and/or working with digital forensics in human rights archives.  If digital records are being collected as evidence, how can we ensure that they will be accepted as authentic in the legal sense?

Can digital records be used as legal evidence?

tess909 wrote:

If digital records are being collected as evidence, how can we ensure that they will be accepted as authentic in the legal sense?

Great question, Tessa! I would be curious to explore this further - are there situations in which digital records are used as legal evidence?  I remember, when I was an intern at a torture treatment center in Uganda, we had to use film cameras to photograph wounds, scars, etc for documentation, and evidence.  The Uganda Human Rights Commission would not accept photographs that were taken by a digital camera.  (I'm still not sure I understand the rationale behind this because any picture taken with a film camera can easily be digitized, manipulated, and then printed like any other picture - but perhaps they require the original film?) 

In addition to Tessa's question about how to ensure that digital records can be used as evidence, it would be great to hear examples in which digital records have been used in this way.  What is the standard criteria for digital records to be accepted as legal evidence?

Info from Trudy and Grace on digital records as evidence

I see now that Trudy already responded to this question in another thread:

Trudy Peterson wrote:

The admissibility of records as evidence depends entirely on the legal system in the country where the action is brought.  In some countries digital evidence is now routinely accepted, while in others only paper is accepted as a legally valid format.  That will change, of course, as more and more legal systems accept digital materials as evidence, but at present there is no uniform standard.

and Grace:

gracelile wrote:

The CRL Electronic Evidence Study report mentioned by James Simon includes surveys of admissibility in both US and international law:  http://www.crl.edu/grn/hradp/electronic-evidence

The Intl Bar Association has drafted some great short, graphical guidelines as well - which I unforntunately can't share until published but will do so as soon as I can.

Thanks, ladies!

Admissibility of digital records as evidence

I would add two overarching points:

That regardless of current standards or lack thereof, as digital evidence proliferates, that which has higher indicators of authenticity, relevance, chain of custody, etc, will have a much greater chance of being admitted or deemed credible;

and that documentation need not serve as evidence admitted in court, but can also support fact-finding investigations leading to subsequent actions.

Grace Lile


evidence from YouTube

A quite amazing case was that of General Rasim Delic, the Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Army, who, among others, was standing trial before the ICTY because he failed to prevent/punish the inhumane treatment of Serb POWs by the Mujahideen detachment. An ambiguous 1996 recording of Delic's speech containing crucial evidence that the Mujahideen were under his command (a fact that his defense team denied from the outset) was posted on YouTube in September 2007 and the prosecution successfully battled to have it admitted into evidence. (The authenticity of the audio file was examined by the Dutch Forensic Institue.) You can find more info on this case here and here.

The challenges of the multitude and the research

One challenge we have not yet talked about is the mass, the multitude of documentations present on the web. Posts in this dialogue are full of very interesting projects which collect, preserve digital datas, video, pictures, oral and written testimonies, even web sites... That’s very impressive and I salute the commitment of all the activists of this Dialogue.
However  we cumulate more and more datas; sometimes same datas throught several website and I wonder :

 Don’t we have to regulate that flow of information? In paper archives, we use to “update” collections, because of legal deadlines of conservation. Sometimes we eliminate somes archives! We used to say : “Too much information kill information”, don’t we? Do anybody use “criteria” or have a specific politics for regulation of the information?
I think that to get your own opinion, you need to cross several sources of informations, so the multitude can be a good thing. But  don’t we end up getting lost? And how can we “not be lost”, especially if we are just a "simple citizen"?

Next question is about the research. How can we find the right information, the one we specially need through the web ? Michelle Caswell, Kristin Antin and Grace Lile already talked about the importance of archival description in the Dialogue about  the critical role of archives in promoting HR

But Internet can be accessed by many people, sometimes people who are not familiar with HR description, or not familiar with our professionnal language of archivists. Do we have to simplify our tools of research to be as accessible as possible? Or do we consider that kind of information is reserved to a specific public. What is making sense?

 I would be grateful if someone can give elements of reflections of these questions of multitude and so research of informations on the web.

Céline Fouga

Security in human rights documentation and archiving

For human rights defenders documenting abuses and discrimination, security is a paramount concern. The way we store information can make it vulnerable to theft, loss and destruction, and for many groups or individuals who take on documentation projects, the record they create may be the only record of that event anywhere. This is important, sensitive information, and it can make the keeper of that information a target, especially when perpetrator groups (state or non-state) see the potential release of that information, or even merely its possession, as a threat.

And perhaps the data is being stored on paper on a shelf, or in Word documents on a desktop. It would be easy for attackers to access and/or destroy those records, and with no way to get them back. Martus is a free, open source, secure information management tool that Benetech has developed specifically to address the vulnerability of sensitive human rights data. It encrypts the data locally on the user's machine and backs up the information to remote servers. This way, if a machine is stolen, the perpetrator cannot access the data, but the original user is able to retrieve her data.

I'd be happy to engage a broader discussion of security challenges and various tools/approaches for solutions here, and also glad to talk more about what Martus does and how it works for those interested (a Martus-specific discussion is likely more appropriate for the shared-resources conversation, so head that way for that content, if you like).

More about Martus

Hi Collin,

I'd be very interested in hearing more about Martus and how it works, as well as the security challanges for human rights defenders creating/collecting documentation.


Documenting violations - choosing the right approach

Tessa and all,

This is a great question to ask! In one of our previous New Tactics dialogues this question was raised along with great practices and resources for helping human rights advocates to consider Documenting Violations: Choosing the Right Approach. The brief summary of that dialogue can provide a good starting point for the areas of the dialogue that you would be most interested to explore.

More about Martus

Hi Collin

I'm very interested in Martus. Wondering about the process and procedures for a worldwide system of security of digital information.  


Joan Edenburg

Archivist Peacebrigades International

Re: More about Martus

Hi Tess and Joan,

I'm glad to hear you're interested to learn more about Martus. And Nancy, thanks very much for linking to that dialogue. It's a great starting point for a discussion like this, and I would recommend skimming through it, for those who haven't yet. I'll leave some comments here about Martus, how it works, and more of the security threats it has been designed to address. I know this is coming right at the tail-end of the dialogue (and apologies I could not post more this week--I've been traveling and only able to contribute sporadically), so for Tess, Joan, and anyone else who would like to continue discussing these issues, I invite you to write to info [at] martus [dot] org, which goes to the entire Martus outreach team, including me.

As mentioned earlier, Martus is intended to address data's vulnerabilities related to potential theft, compromise, loss or destruction, both intentional (from an attacker) and accidental (e.g. hard drive failure, natural disaster).

To address these concerns, Martus was designed with the following characteristics:

Free: As our director likes to say, Martus is "free like free beer." Anyone can download the software from the Martus website, available for Mac, PC and Linux machines, and begin using it immediately. Also, no ads.

Open source: Martus' source code is available at sourceforge for review and contribution from other software developers. This serves a dual purpose: In the spirit of open source technology, it encourages input from others in the tech community, so that Martus is not only a Benetech project but a community one, and also affords transparency, whereby potential partners can independently verify that Martus does what we say it does, that there is no secret backend that sends a user's data to Benetech or anyone else (more on that below). For more information on how Benetech is trying to support the open source software development model, see another Benetech initiative, SocialCoding4Good.

Secure: I'll go into this in a bit more detail below, but when you save records (called “bulletins”) using Martus, the software encrypts them on the local machine and automatically backs them up via an SSL connection to remote servers. Only the person with the key can decipher the data. Should the data be lost, its author can retrieve it again by downloading it from the servers.

Information management: At its core, Martus is a program that allows users to organize their information, and manage that information using searching and reporting functionality.

I would also like to highlight some additional important details about the software and how it works:

  • As mentioned, the information is encrypted on the user's computer and then is backed up to the server (via an encrypted connection) in that encrypted format. Because of this, even if the servers were compromised for whatever reason, the data stored on the server would be encrypted and inaccessible. The only way attackers would be able to access the data would be if they acquired each users’s encryption key, or  were able to break the advanced encryption. Breaking the encryption is a very, very difficult task, and we have never heard of a Martus account being successfully compromised in this way. Also, the encryption keys are generated locally when a user creates her account, and each encryption key is unique. So, each account requires a different key for decryption. If you wanted to access encrypted data from 10 different accounts, you would need 10 different keys to decrypt all of it.
  • Because the keys are generated locally on the user’s computer, Benetech does not have access to them. This means that if someone were to request, subpoena or otherwise demand access to the servers, we could turn over the encrypted data, but we could never decrypt it. Unless a user chooses to share their data with us, we cannot access it. It is as secure from us as it is from anyone else. 
  • If they like, users can set up secure sharing relationships with other Martus users and authorize those users to see particular bulletins. This is typically done via the server: User A saves a bulletin and authorizes User B to have access to it, User A sends the bulletin to the server, and the server recognizes that User B has permission to access to it. The next time User B logs into her Martus account and has an internet connection, she can download that bulletin. Setting up a secure sharing relationship in Martus is not difficult, but it is deliberate; Martus walks you through the steps so that you don’t accidentally authorize someone to see your data.

Martus addresses some key vulnerabilities in human rights documentation, but certainly not all of them. Human rights defenders should think hard about how they communicate online, for example--which email service will they use? What about instant messenger tools? These are only a couple of examples to illustrate that, while Martus can be part of the answer to a successful documentation project, it is only one tool, and it does not do everything. We know of many users who implement Martus as just one piece of their broader security protocol.

Finally, some other links that might be useful in gaining a broader knowledge of Martus and its application:

  • The Case Studies page at Martus.org provides some great background on ways Martus has been used in various human rights contexts.
  • The Martus FAQs are a great resource for typical troubleshooting, and to get a better sense of its functionality.
  • If interested, readers can walk through a demo of the software.

As I say, please email us (address above, in first paragraph) if you'd like to continue this discussion, or if you have any questions, thoughts, or feedback. We’d be happy to hear any and all.


Archival work in Uganda

First off, everything that has been discussed thus far is extremely interesting to this recently-graduated archival professional!

I just wanted to say a word about some work that I participated in last summer, in Uganda, and invite thoughts and comments on implementing archival work in locales where archival practice--indeed, the recognition of the very importance of historical documents--is perhaps less than what those of us trained and working in the Western hemisphere are used to.

Briefly, I worked as an intern for one month at Uganda's Kabarole District Archives, housed at Mountains of the Moon University in Fort Portal, implementing a basic digitization workflow; this work was followed by an ambitious two months in which myself and a team of fellow graduate students aimed to document and catalogue the entirety of the Uganda National Archives (we got about a third of the way through, but much work has been done over the past nine months and I believe there's only a fraction left, to be completed by a new group of interns this summer).  Many questions were raised as a result of our work--issues of access (for both academic researchers and the general public), security (concerns re: documents getting into the wrong hands, hidden agendas), how to 'advertise' the archive's presence and availability to the general populace, and ultimately, how to convince both the Ugandan government and its people of the importance of preserving their historic records.

The documents we were working with largely consisted of colonial and governmental (administrative) records, but of course everyone was keen to find records from Idi Amin's (and Milton Obote's) administrations, of which we found little.  Currently, I believe no one really knows where to look--who to ask--or if such records even exist (although I feel sure that they must, somewhere, in some form).

I'm very much intrigued by the newsletter dissemination practices of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, as mentioned by Michelle Caswell, as many Ugandans do not have regular internet access (although many of them do use their cell phones quite a bit).  I'm not quite sure, however, of the extent to which local and regional government officials would be willing to distribute such (even slightly politically-charged) newsletters...

Long term archive for Truth Commissions

What are the best long term archiving options for a Truth Commission that needs a long term storage of its data on violations? In particular archiving by an academic institution in Europe or USA. The Commission I am thinking of has PDF scans of its statements, mp3 recordings of the victim interviews, and a mysql database, so its all electronic data. What are the key elements a Truth Commission needs to think of, and what is the usual or recommended practice in terms of access policy, or the duration in which the records are kept confidential before they are made public (50 years?).

Many thanks for your responses on this, its a question we urgently need to answer on behalf of a Commission we are currently working with.



Preserving the records of truth commissions

Daniel, I have done a lot of work on truth commissions and options.  The book I wrote on preserving the records of truth commissions (free online from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) is a bit old now, but it gives the commission a list of political, legal and archival issues to consider when it decides how to preserve its archives.  Swisspeace is considering doing an updated version of the book as part of its new initiative.

Temporary Courts, Permanent Records, (PDF) Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2008

The preservation of the truth commission records depends heavily on whether it was established by a government, private organization or international body.  And it also depends on how stable the country is when the truth commission completes its work.  Finally, the politics of taking anything other than a copy outside the country is extremely problematic, for dozens of reasons.  For a good survey of these issues, see the website of the truth commission of Canada, which hosted a conference on this topic in late winter 2011.

Next steps?

All - before we come to the end of the dia;ogue I would love to hear from as many of you as possible:

What are the 2 or 3 biggest challenges / opportunities in the field right now?  Are there some specific, concrete ideas and next steps that archivists, human rights groups, documenters, technologists or others might take to address them?


Grace Lile


new narratives

Grace, one of the more intriguing issues that we started musing about recently is how human rights documentation from 'established' sources (and initially created for advocacy, fact-finding, forensic analysis, criminal investigation, outreach, etc.) could be combined with citizen generated content in order to construct alternative narratives on various conflicts, human rights abuses or violent disruptions in the lives of particular communities. And how these new narratives can be used to shape collective memory, rebuild community identity or promote historical dialogue and reconciliation.

Although we have just started to X-ray our documentation from this perspective and the citizen archives part will likely hit in next year only, there is a wide range of issues that already came up and we need to tackle, including digitization and more digitization; level of granularity in processing; multiliguality of sources; authenticity, reliability and possible dangers (such as historical revisionism) of citizen generated content; tools for online storytelling; identification, extraction and verification of relevant data, etc.

Challenges and opportunities

Great question, Grace.

The two biggest challenges that come to mind have already been raised within the course of the discussion, but I'll take the opportunity to mention them again. 

1) The volume of human rights documentation is far too large for any one or a handful of archival institutions to handle. I think that professional organizations, such as the ICA and SAA human rights interest groups as well as Archivists Without Borders, etc. could play an instrumental role in mitigating this issue by working together and building a distributed network of professionals and institutions that could help build archival capacity among human rights documentation creators as well respond to urgent human rights documentation preservation needs. 

2) The rate at which human rights documentation is created with new technologies exceeds the pace with which the archival community can establish preservation best practices, let alone standards. (And let's be honest, the archival profession has not been the most agile in responding to digital preservation issues.) I would love to see more collaboration between the tech sector and the traditional archival community to address issues such as preservation, privacy, metadata, particularly within the design of new technologies.

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