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Importance of documentation and archives in dealing with the past

Importance of documentation and archives in dealing with the past

Elisabeth Baumgartner of the Swiss Peace Foundation speaking on “Dealing with the past” project at a WCC Archives event in Geneva.

22 January 2014

In a talk organized by the Archives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Elisabeth Baumgartner, a Swiss lawyer and head of the project “Dealing with the Past” at the Swiss Peace Foundation (swisspeace), stressed the importance of archives and documentation in dealing with the past, which she said is pertinent to the institutional and informal mechanisms seeking justice, reconciliation and conflict resolution.

Baumgartner addressed the audience of members of local and international community in Geneva, involved with the work of archives, international affairs and peace-building.

Baumgartner’s talk, held on 20 January at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, was organized by the Forum of the Archivists in Geneva in collaboration with the WCC Archives.

Speaking on the issue of “Archives and Dealing with the Past”, access to information and the “right to know”, Baumgartner said that national and international mechanisms dealing with the past, such as investigations, truth commissions and tribunals, have a major responsibility in managing and maintaining the archives containing information regarding human rights violations.

She added that they need to “find a balance between information access and data protection in regard to witnesses and should be really aware of the importance of the archives for a society in a process of transition.”

At the event, Baumgartner also shared examples from East-Timor, Chile, Croatia, Guatemala, Argentina, the Philippines and South Africa on how archives remain sensitive and in danger so far as their use in mechanisms searching for truth and justice.

Baumgartner explained that archives useful for the investigation of human rights violations are to be found not only in the obvious institutions such as the courts, army and police, but also in hospitals, churches and human rights organizations. Therefore, she said that the “unrestricted access of such information to transitional justice mechanisms like tribunals and truth commissions is important.”

Another aspect, she continued, is the preservation, protection, maintenance of and access to archives created by such mechanisms. They constitute an “important legacy which should be made available to the societies” concerned with the human rights violations.

Baumgartner’s presentation particularly noted that the archives are essential to strengthen democratic institutions and law-based state structures after a period of deep crisis.

Baumgartner also introduced to her audience the project “Archives and Dealing with the Past”. The project is a joint initiative of the Swiss Federal Archives, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Peace Foundation, and it provides support to actors in the field of transitional justice related to the protection, preservation and management of human rights archives.

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