For people who spend their lives seeking to document the world’s worst crimes, a rare moment of serendipity can open up a whole world.
Guatemalan researchers had long searched in vain for records that could prove official responsibility for torture and murder during the country’s 36-year civil war. The government denied that such an archive even existed. Then, in July 2005, a routine inspection of a forgotten warehouse changed the game overnight. The building was stacked floor to ceiling with more than 80 million pages of documents: the National Police Archive, dating back more than 100 years.
Investigators are still making their way through the cache. But on most days, atrocity documentation specialists acquire their evidence page by page.
Today, the Documentation Affinity Group, an international consortium of human rights record-keepers, completes a weeklong meeting in Phnom Penh to learn from each other’s methods. High on the agenda was discussion of the difficulties they face.
In Afghanistan, there are few official records to study. Most evidence is gained through painstaking and dangerous interviews with victims of abuses. “The biggest challenge is security,” said Haji Mohammad Malek, a researcher for the Afghanistan Justice Project in Kabul. “The people we are investigating are still in high political positions in Afghanistan,” he said.
“The first thing people say is, ‘We have many things we can tell you, but can you protect us?’” said Hadi Ogal, a human rights assistant for the UN.
“Whenever Human Rights Watch issues a report on Afghanistan, they evacuate everyone involved in the report from the country first,” said Asif Ehsan, a consultant for Open Society Institute Afghanistan. “That illustrates the danger.”
Hassan Mneimneh, director of the Iraq Memory Foundation, which documents abuses of the Baath era, said that his project had become increasingly politicized in recent years. “Everyone views us as biased,” he said.
Mneimneh said he hopes atrocity documentation will help depolarize Iraqi society, but he worries that it will have the opposite effect. “You can tell how people perceive the show by which stations pirate it,” he added. “Mostly, Shiite stations pick it up.”
Naing Htoo, program coordinator for the EarthRights International Burma Project, said that trust is an issue. “Even within a family, people can’t trust each other,” he said. “If you want to talk to three people in one family, you have to interview them separately.”
Because Burma’s ruling military junta is still deeply entrenched, much of Naing Htoo’s documentation is ongoing work for the future.
“We don’t just ask about human rights violations. We ask about people’s lives,” he said.