Hidden Files: Archival Sharing, Accountability, and the Right to the Truth
84 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2014 Last revised: 3 Jan 2015
Date Written: November 11, 2014
Societies undertake a variety of truth and accountability measures to deal with legacies of gross human rights violations. For those measures to be effective, courts, commissions, victims and their representatives, and the general public need access to official records and archives. Archival materials can shed light on specific acts of abuse, as well as the larger patterns of violence or repression in which those acts were embedded. In addition to domestic government archives, the classified records of “third countries” — states outside the jurisdiction in which a particular crime occurred — can be crucial in advancing truth and accountability. Nevertheless, the law seldom requires third countries to share their secret files, and voluntary disclosure remains relatively rare. This constitutes an important weak link in the international human rights regime.
In this article, we argue for enhanced third-country disclosure of human rights files. We argue both for enhanced voluntary declassification and stronger legal norms to mandate the release of information about gross human rights violations, emphasizing the role of civil society organizations in driving both forms of disclosure. We use examples from Latin America and elsewhere to show the power of declassified U.S. documents and other third-country records to elucidate specific crimes and the bureaucratic systems and international cooperation behind them. We discuss the case of Libya to demonstrate the need for similar disclosure to illuminate abuses in the Middle East and North Africa and other regions suffering from droughts in truth and accountability. We then consider the benefits of disclosure to third countries and some means of addressing their national security and diplomatic concerns. We conclude by examining pathways for the development of stronger legal norms on third-country disclosure going forward.
Keywords: Transitional justice, right to the truth, human rights, freedom of information, archives
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