Archiving Human Rights for Advocacy, Justice and Memory

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 to Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Conversation type: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Grace Lile of WITNESS and the New Tactics community for this conversation on archiving. Archiving and preservation have long taken a backseat to more urgent aspects of human rights documentation and advocacy, but that is beginning to change. Human rights archives are increasingly playing a pivotal role in advocacy, restorative justice, historical memory, and struggles against impunity. At the same time, however, archivists and activists alike are grappling with the mounting challenges posed by the proliferation of digital documentation. How can we ensure that the critical documentation created today will be preserved and accessible in the future?  Dialogue participants discussed the tactics and methods used by archivists to preserve human rights information.

What is human rights archiving and why is it important?

In general, archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value (source: Wikipedia).  Human rights archives take many forms; but common to all, one participant suggests, is the idea that preserving truth is essential to protecting rights, to seeking redress, and to supporting reconciliation or recovery in damaged societies.  Grace Lile of WITNESS writes, “one of our goals as archivists is to make sure that documentation created today is not only used in current advocacy, but also preserved for future needs, be they legal or educational.”

The role of an archive can be properly thought of as a supporting mechanism for all other forms of human rights redress, another participant suggested. Archivists are “shapers of historical memory,” a mission that closely coincides with human rights advocacy. Although the ultimate uses of documentation can be difficult to predict, this participant went on to explain that sound archiving practices are key to the survival and integrity of evidence. Adding onto this, one participant noted that the role in human rights archives in documenting the reality of what happened in a situation is itself a laudable and sufficient end, apart from advocacy. Such information can also be used to study a given history and drive new insights into important phenomena that are not currently well understood.

How have archives played a critical role in promoting or defending human rights?

One participant highlights 5 key ways in which archives support and promote human rights:

  • By promoting accountability;
  • By supporting prosecutions and legal redress, through the preservation of evidence;
  • By ensuring historical memory;
  • By enabling and guaranteeing the right to know;
  • By preserving diversity, in actively preserving the stories and experiences of people across the economic, political and social spectrum, and not just those with economic or political power.

Archivists can have a significant impact on holding the perpetrators of human rights violations legally and historically accountable through virtually every archival function, one participant wrote.  Here is a list of examples shared by participants:

Archiving is also used as a tool for education and reconciliation. Here is a list of examples shared by participants:

  • Zochrot: An organization that collects documents and information about Palestinian villages before 1948 in order to bring them to the consciousness of Israeli citizens.
  • Tahrir Monologues: Encourages activists who took part in the 18-day uprising in 2011 to send their stories from the uprising whether via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter and is bringing these stories to life in the form of theater and the performing arts.
  • Syrian Martyrs: An online, browsable database of people who have been killed amidst the Syrian uprisings.

Archives are also being used for the purposes of human rights advocacy through the recording and preserving of evidence. Here is a list of examples provided by participants:

  • B’Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: An organization providing a video department of archives which contain thousands of hours of raw material, testimonies, and footage from various places in the Occupied Territories, and is used by filmmakers, media people, academics, students, and any person who wants to learn the reality of life under occupation.
  • International Center for Transnational Justice: Capturing raw information about human rights violations as they happen and making sure the information is preserved.
  • Document Center of Cambodia: “Documenting, researching, and sharing the history of the Khmer Rouge period”.
  • Documenting Justice: A publication by the International Center for Transitional Justice that draws on the experience of six local action groups/NGOs working in societies battling against or emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict.

One participant added that although there are many sound examples of archives promoting and defending human rights, there are also some unsound examples of records and archives actually aiding or furthering human rights abuse. Indeed, another participant added onto this by further suggesting the importance of context as being key in archiving and documentation.

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

One participant took note of the main challenges they’ve faced when developing educational resources for activists in order to ensure the integrity and reliability of records.   
In some instances, even when materials have made it to the archive, it is too late, particularly to capture robust descriptive metadata that will provide important context to the materials, another participant added. In order to combat the onset of this, establishing more archival-minded practices requires more time invested by the organization up front, but can save them time and energy later on.

In countries where people are illiterate, collecting information may be very difficult especially if we take into account the pressure of society to keep silent, one participant argued. Questions of illiteracy and the collecting of information calls to mind the issue of access and use of materials and the importance of oral history as documentation.

Another participant brought to light the potential issue of the destruction of materials outside the digital realm whose existence is kept and obscured from the general public, particularly in the case of documents chronicling the activities of covert operations supported or instigated by repressive governments. One participant suggested that one way to protect information from being destroyed is to use a service/tool such as Martus to securely back up the data to an offsite server.

The difficulty of standardizing the vocabulary of human rights terms in a unified manner is a current reality, as another participant wrote. That, there currently is no “one-size-fits-all” approach concerning this. As a response to this dilemma, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative has developed its own local vocabulary that serves as subject headings instead of index terms, this has not yet become available to the public, however. A definition of description, furthermore, can be found at The Society of American Archivists, another participant added. Such sources contributed to outlining what some practices for using standardized vocabularies versus customized description could be.  

One challenge for archivists is the multitude of documentations present on the web as it makes it more difficult to regulate the mass of information, one participant wrote. For human rights defenders documenting abuses and discrimination, furthermore, security is a paramount concern. Martus is a free, open source, secure information management tool that Benetech has developed specifically to address the vulnerability of sensitive human rights data.

The volume of human rights documentation is far too large for any one or a handful of archival institutions to handle. Professional organizations, such as the ICA and SAA human rights interest groups as well as Archivists Without Borders 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 as respond to urgent human rights documentation preservation needs, another participant suggested.  

The rate at which human rights documentation is created with new technologies exceeds the pace with which the archival community can establish preservation of best practices, let alone standards. 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 to mitigate this challenge, is necessary, one participant concluded.

Resources on human rights archiving, shared by participants:

  • Archivists' Guide to Archiving Video by WITNESS: Illustrated, easy-to-navigate, the Guide is intended to help activists, human rights defenders, and NGOs using digital video to better incorporate archiving into their documentation and advocacy work.  It provides practical tips, resources and best practices on a range of digital archiving issues, including media management, file transfer, storage, cataloging, working with an archive, and more. 
  • Amara: A tool which can add caption to and translate any video.
  • Box: “Simple Online Collaboration” to store and stream audio and video.
  • B’Tselem: “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories”.
  • CBA PracticeLink: “Collecting and authenticating online evidence”.   
  • Center for Research Libraries: “Global resources network”.
  • Civil Rights Movement Veterans:  “A project of Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement”
  • Columbia University Human Rights Web Archive: An effort to preserve and ensure access to freely available human rights resources created mainly by NGOs, NHRIs, and individuals.
  • Dropbox:  Website which store and stream audio and video.
  • European Coordination Committee on Human Rights Documentation: “A loose network of organizations (IGOs, NGOs, academic institutions and human rights centers) doing human rights documentation in Europe”.
  • Human Rights Archives Directory: An “ICA project to build an on-line directory of (1) archives that identify themselves as human rights archives and (2) archives that are part of a human rights organization and are open to the public”.
  • ICT for Peacebuilding: “Exploring the use of information and communications technology for conflict transformation”.
  • International Council on Archives: An organization “dedicated to the effective management of records and the preservation, care and use of the world's archival heritage through its representation of records and archive professionals across the globe”.
  • Internet Archive: Resource which uploads any amount of audio and video.  
  • Library of Congress: “Archiving cell phone text messages”
  • Martus: “A free software technology tool designed to assist human rights organizations in collecting, safeguarding, organizing and disseminating information about human rights abuses”.
  • Memoria Abierta: “Organization which organizes thousands of documents related to the state terrorism and makes them accessible through an online database as a way to raise public awareness about the period of state terrorism in Argentina (1976-1983)”.
  • Mukurtu: A “free and open source platform for managing and sharing digital heritage, built for indigenous communities, archives, libraries and museums”.
  • New Tactics in Human Rights Tactic Case Study: “Open Memory: Using inter-institutional cooperation to facilitate access to human rights”.
  • Parallel Archive: Tool which can store, manage and share digitized textual and photographic archival sources.
  • Society of American Archivists: “North America's oldest and largest national archival professional association”.
  • WITNESS Media Archive provides media archive tools for human rights practitioners.

Conversation Leaders

tess909's picture
Tessa Fallon
Columbia University Libraries
gracelile's picture
Grace Lile
yvonneng's picture
Yvonne Ng
jblanco's picture
Joel Blanco-Rivera
Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science
Michelle Caswell's picture
Michelle Caswell
Suhaira's picture
Suhair Abdi
B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Celine FOUGA's picture
Celine Fouga
Sanjana's picture
Sanjana Hattotuwa
ICT4Peace Foundation
Aileen R. Cornelio's picture
Aileen Rose Cornelio
Archivists Watch
Lior Elefant's picture
Lior Elefant
sangwand's picture
T-Kay Sangwand
Human Rights Documentation Initiative | Benson Latin American Collection | University of Texas Libraries
jamestsimon's picture
James Simon
Center for Research Libraries
mhramirez's picture
Mario Hugo Ramirez
collinsullivan's picture
Collin Sullivan