Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists and Records Managers in Support of Human Rights

Digitization Project at Radio Mogadishu, Somalia. Source: United Nations Photo

Digitization Project at Radio Mogadishu, Somalia. Source: United Nations Photo

Those who are managing human rights archives and records now have a new set of principles and duties to further professionalize, support, and protect their work. The “Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists and Records Managers in Support of Human Rights” have been developed by the Human Rights Working Group of the International Council on Archives (ICA). On the occasion of the ICA Congress held in Seoul in September 2016, these principles have been endorsed by the Programme Commission as an ICA working document for discussion, publicizing and use by archivists.

Download the Principles in English, French and Spanish [PDF].

Below is an excerpt from the Introduction to the Principles:

Archives are useful for human rights purposes. Many of these archives are essential to secure rights and benefits: personnel records, records of social insurance programs, records of occupational health and safety, records of military service. Other archives help prove civil rights: voter registrations, land titles, citizenship records. Still others provide evidence of the abuse of human rights, such as the records of military, police and intelligence units from periods of dictatorship, even records of prisons, hospitals, morgues and cemeteries.

Archivists and records managers handling archives with human rights aspects deal with concrete legal issues, questions of broad social policy, and matters of personal professional ethics. In many countries, this is complex but manageable using the best professional practice. However, archivists and records managers in a variety of situations and institutions may find themselves under pressure as they attempt to manage such archives. They may not be permitted to have access to the records for purposes of management or appraisal, they may be pressured to approve the disposal of archives that they believe have human rights implications, they may be instructed not to acknowledge in finding aids that the archives exist, they may not be able to undertake necessary preservation actions on these archives, they may not be permitted to make decisions about public access on these archives or provide them to qualified researchers. And they may fear retaliation if they seek to follow professional principles.

All archivists and records managers look for support from the profession at large as they seek to show the profession in its best, most competent light as they handle archives of importance for human rights. The International Council on Archives adopted a Code of Ethics in 1996, which provides a set of ethical parameters within which archivists carry out their professional duties. In 2011 the Universal Declaration on Archives, adopted by UNESCO in 2011, gave voice to the significance to the peoples of world of archives and the work of archivists and records managers. These important documents provide a general framework for the responsibilities of the profession; however, the important linkage between human rights and archives makes it important to clearly focus on the ethical and practical problems that are stated only generally in the framework Code and Declaration.

The Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists and records managers in Support of Human Rights is organized in two parts: a Preamble and a set of Principles. The Preamble provides the conceptual framework for the Principles. Each Principle is accompanied by explanatory text which is not part of the Principle. The Principles are grouped in five sections. The first two sections cover the basic archival functions; the third covers the special situations of working with archives that appear to document wrongdoing and with displaced archives; the fourth and fifth sections are devoted to the roles and rights of archivists and records managers as professionals.

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