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Government Records: Human Rights Evidence

July 30, 2013

I had the privilege of presenting at the 10th biennial International Association of Genocide Scholars conference in Siena, Italy this past June. A wide range of scholars presented on the theme of “The Aftermath of Genocide: Victims and Perpetrators, Representations and Interpretations.”

At the National Security Archive, in addition to filing FOIAs and posting about the documents we get declassified, we also advocate for, and educate about the value of the documents, how to analyze them, and how to use them effectively in research, advocacy work, and judicial proceedings.

I presented on the role of government records as evidence of genocide, and the importance of preserving records as a part of a society’s historical memory. I provided several detailed examples of this through the case studies of Guatemala and Rwanda.

The biggest point that I was trying to get across in my presentation is that access to information is a fundamental human right because government records:

  • provide important primary-source evidence in human rights trials;
  • provide insight into international decision-making on genocide intervention policies; and
  • preserve historical memory so we may work to prevent genocide in the future.

Rwanda – international decision-making

An example that I presented for the case of Rwanda was a U.S. Department of Defense memo that helps to shed light on the decision made by the Clinton administration to not jam the broadcasts of the RTLM (Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) radio, an avenue which perpetrators used to encourage others to conduct the massacres.

Department of Defense

Department of Defense

Will Ferroggiaro describes the document in a previous National Security Archive web-posting:

In this memo, Frank Wisner, the number three official at the Pentagon, acknowledges internal discussions about the feasibility of countering the hate radio.  He replies to Sandy Berger, the deputy to National Security Adviser Tony Lake, that undertaking the initiative to “jam” the radio would be “ineffective and expensive”; a “wiser” activity would be to assist the “relief effort”.

This is a document that is important to the historical memory of the United States because it shows some very stark realities of the decision-making process regarding international policy.

Guatemala – evidence in judicial proceedings

We also see the evidentiary value of documents in the case of Guatemalan Edgar Fernando García, in which records recovered from the Historical Archive of the National Police of Guatemala were used as key evidence to convict two police officers of carrying out his forced disappearance.

The case involved Fernando García and Danilo Chinchilla, both active in the leftist student resistance movement. In the mid-morning on February 18, 1984, the two activists were apprehended by members of the Guatemalan National Police, arrested as subversives, and disappeared from downtown Guatemala City. Their families never heard from them again and filed countless petitions to the government, asking for information about the fate of their loved ones. The government repeatedly denied having any information. However, unbeknownst to the family members, the National Police and the Guatemalan army had been secretly conducting surveillance on García and hundreds of other Guatemalans for years, developing detailed dossiers on their activities, as well as their eventual arrest and interrogations.

Only after the accidental discovery of the Historical Archives of the National Police in 2005 were the police documents about García’s surveillance, arrest, and disappearance made available to family members, and the general public.  They were critical to the 2010 conviction of two police officers in the case.


(See page 2 of full PDF here)

This particular document records the nomination of four police officers, Hector Roderico Ramírez Ríos, Alfonso Guillermo de Leon, Hugo Rolando Gomez Osorio, and Abraham Lancerio Gómez, to receive awards for their actions on February 18, 1984 at 11:00 in the morning, in connection with their encounter with “two subversives” who allegedly had been in possession of propaganda and fire arms at the “Mercado de Guarda” in zone 11. This was the exact date, time, and place where García and Chinchilla had been abducted. In her testimony at trial, expert witness Velia Muralles used this document to demonstrate that these former officers took part in García’s forced disappearance.

See the Archive’s full web-posting with additional documents on the story of Edgar Fernando García, here, and here.

Preservation of Historical Memory

Preserving government records is important not only because of their value as evidence of human rights violations and genocide, but also because they help us better understand the role of individual states and the international community in intervening and failing to intervene to stop mass atrocity. By better grasping the decision-making processes of governments and the world community, we can identify lessons learned, and hopefully have better informed prevention policies for the future.

Having access to these government records is especially important in cases where crimes against humanity and genocide are being denied outright by government officials who participated in them, as in the case of Guatemala. The current president, Otto Perez Molina, and other former military leaders are denying that genocide occurred, and are using intimidation to challenge survivors’ testimony and the arguments of human rights defenders.

Conferences like the one in Siena provide a wonderful opportunity for the National Security Archive to demonstrate the importance of declassified documents in championing human rights, and to call for human rights organizations to actively include “the right to information” in their advocacy work.


Emily Willard is the project coordinator and research associate for the “Failure to Prevent” project, a partnership between the National Security Archive, the United States Holocaust Museum and the Salzburg Global Seminar seeking to document modern genocides and draw lessons for genocide prevention.

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