Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions
By Trudy Huskamp Peterson
Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Peterson, Trudy Huskamp. Final Acts: A Guide to Preserving the Records of Truth Commissions. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Peterson brings her considerable expertise as an archivist to an important question that has not garnered significant attention, how to preserve the legacy of a truth commission. If a truth commission is to serve the purpose of providing authoritative history and overcoming denial, its work must remain accessible far into the future. It can also serve as a lesson for future generations. In addition, future developments may provide additional insights or evidence that put previously collected information in a new light. Yet, truth commissions often face significant challenges completing their work let alone contemplating how to preserve the record it has accumulated. This book offers a concise primer on how to do this well.
Broadly speaking, the records to be preserved involve administrative files related to financial and personnel matters; program records, such files from speeches, hearings, and press conferences; and investigative records, which relate to specific crimes. How to deal with these issues depends on the legal, political, and archival environment into which the commission's work is delivered.
Peterson discusses the significance of a number of these factors. With respect to the legal environment, existing laws related to archives and access to information, property rights, ownership of evidence, and access and confidentiality of records all shape what is possible. Political considerations of importance include the reputation of the institution designated to serve as repository, threats or reasons for destruction of records, degree and type of access to whom, and whether a governmental or private institution is better suited to maintain the records. Finally, decisions on how to deal with truth commission records will depend on the type of media that make up the records and the availability of suitable facilities and personnel to manage the archives within the country. In each of these areas, she provides a series of questions related to these areas.
The book offers a few other things to help serve as a guide. Peterson then briefly discusses the findings of her survey of how twenty truth commission countries have handled their records. Appendices also give more structured advice on how to deal with various aspects of the archival challenge. First, she outlines criteria for distinguishing commission records from personal property. Second, she draws on criteria outlined in Louis Joinet's 1996 report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with respect to access to commission records. Access criteria, Peterson argues, depend on the type of record involved. For example, victims should have say in access to their own records. Finally, she gives storage guidelines for the preservation of various types of media.