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  • The Archival Imperative: Human Rights and Historical Memory in Latin America’s Southern Cone
  • Louis Bickford* (bio)

I. Introduction: Human Rights and Historical Memory—The Archival Imperative

Over the last two decades, it has become almost axiomatic that, in order for a country to build a democratic and humanistic future, it must confront the demons of its past. In those countries where massive violence, genocide, torture, extreme abuses of human rights, massacres, and war have occurred, there is a growing sense that the pain and suffering associated with these happenings must be acknowledged and confronted. Furthermore, scholars, lawyers, human rights practitioners, victims, and members of the international community have recommended various ways in which this kind of pain might be addressed. Truth Commissions are a prime example, such as those in South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, and a number of other countries, and they have been highlighted for their ability to draw the truth out of a [End Page 1097] murky and horrific past, thus, (potentially) leading to reconciliation. Trials of villains, at least since Nuremberg, which set some of the standards, have been considered key instruments for dealing with the past. Other approaches to the past have included, among others, official apology, lustration, state-sponsored ceremonies, the building of monuments, and attempts at healing through art, fiction, and film. 1

Another vitally important means of remembering the past is a conscious effort to preserve primary documentation relating to human rights abuses. However, an emphasis on archival preservation is often not explicitly highlighted as a key ingredient to deepening democracy and the long-term vibrancy of democratic practices in countries that have experienced traumatic pasts. Furthermore, archival preservation can be complex and challenging, especially in the context of post-conflict or post-authoritarian situations, and these aspects deserve close attention.

In the countries of the Southern Cone of Latin America, 2 which are the focus of this article, primary documents related to human rights abuses are rapidly disappearing and are in danger of being lost due to age and deterioration, poor storage, natural disasters, or theft. This is especially true of documentation produced by Human Rights Nongovernmental Organizations (HRNGOs). The vast majority of documents have never been copied onto microfilm nor onto electronic or digital formats. Instead, almost all of these documents sit in dusty boxes in storage areas in which they remain uncatalogued, poorly organized, and in a fragile and vulnerable state.

This article argues that human rights organizations, international agencies and foundations, and other nongovernmental organizations need to prioritize archival preservation of primary materials relating to human rights abuses. To make this point, the article examines the state of documentation relating to human rights abuses under military rule in three Southern Cone countries—Chile (from 1973 to 1990), Argentina (from 1976 to 1983), and Uruguay (from 1973 to 1984)—and discusses the political, social, technical, and financial challenges that face advocates of archival preservation. The article is, in part, a result of the author’s visits with each of the HRNGOs discussed in this article, as well as interviews with members of these HRNGOS; scholars; human rights experts; social scientists; lawyers from [End Page 1098] Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay; and bibliographers and library experts from major research libraries and national library systems. Ultimately, the article is meant to be a call for action in a sphere of activity that is sometimes neglected in human rights discourse.

II. The Need to Preserve

In 1906, King Leopold of Belgium ordered that all the documents pertaining to the Belgian Congo be burned. It took eight days, with the furnace raging, to burn all of the governmental documents relating to one of the most dramatic genocides in world history (during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, somewhere between seven and ten million people died as a result of vicious colonial policies in the Belgian Congo). 3 This period in the Belgian Congo has been more or less forgotten in modern history, mainly due to the lack of documentation that survived, making it difficult for historians and researchers to return to primary source materials.

History demonstrates that it often takes a generation or more until people are able to process the trauma...

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