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Two UCLA professors win competitive grant for research on human rights archives
UCLA professors Michelle Caswell and Geoffrey Robinson. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Two UCLA professors win competitive grant for research on human rights archives

Historian Geoffrey Robinson and archivist Michelle Caswell will use a at $40,000 grant from the UC Pacific Research Program to explore the complex set of issues involved in the creation, housing, ownership, and use of archives on human rights abuses and crimes against humanity

“Human Rights Archives in the Pacific Rim” is designed to answer the question: who decides? That is, who controls information on human rights abuses once it is documented? Who owns it? And how is access granted to such archives?


International Institute, May 28, 2013 — UCLA Professor of History Geoffrey Robinson and Assistant Professor of Archival Studies Michelle Caswell have been awarded a $40,000 Faculty Initiative Grant from the University of California Pacific Rim Research Program. The grant will fund research on the challenges of documenting human rights abuses in Cambodia, East Timor and Indonesia. 

Far from being a joint project of Robinson and Caswell alone, “Human Rights Archives in the Pacific Rim: Political, Legal and Ethical Challenges” will bring together historians, human rights practitioners, legal experts and archivists to explore the complex set of issues involved in the creation, housing, ownership and use of archives on human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

The collaborative work will take place over two years and involve an international symposium at UCLA, to be documented in either an edited volume or special issue of a journal. Ultimately, the project will develop a set of best practices for archives on human rights abuses — which the co-investigators currently envision as a list of open-ended questions — that will be posted on an interactive website.

When I caught up with Professors Robinson and Caswell last week, I asked what about the project was most exciting for each of them. For Caswell, it was the chance to have an interdisciplinary conversation that bridged archival practice and the more theoretical issues involved in human rights work.

For Robinson, the greatest appeal of project is its potential to bridge the mutual suspicion and disregard that divides theorists of human rights (including legal scholars, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists) and human rights practitioners.

In addition to sparking dialogue, Robinson looks forward to drawing on the experience of human rights archives in other parts of the world to inform the creation of a set of guidelines that go beyond any specific national framework.

As the co-principal investigators quickly made clear, archives are anything but simple. In fact, their ownership, use and safeguarding involve complicated political and ethical issues. In the first place, what an archivist chooses to preserve in an archive and how they describe its contents is a process that involves value judgments, said Caswell. “Archives,” she said, “are anything but neutral byproducts of activity.”

She explained, for example, that archivists of the genocide in Cambodia committed by the Pol Pot regime chose to identify many victims as minorities — even though the vast majority was not — in order to qualify their deaths as “genocide” under the U.N. Genocide Convention.

“Human Rights Archives in the Pacific Rim,” said Robinson and Caswell, is designed to answer the question: who decides? That is, who controls information on human rights abuses once it is documented? Who owns it? The government? The victims? If the latter, how does someone “qualify” as a victim? And how is access granted to such archives?

In end, Caswell argued that the most important questions are: What do victims want? and What best serves their interests? The answers, the two researchers implied, will differ on a case-by-case basis.

All of these questions are fraught with problems, explained the two professors. Moral and political disputes abound, for example, regarding who can and should be named in published documents, such as human rights reports.

Both researchers are looking forward to the participation of Verne Harris in the project’s upcoming symposium in October 2013. Head of memory programming for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Harris previously worked as head archivist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa and, before that, as an archivist for the South African government. Harris is the pre-eminent theorist of archival studies and a former student of French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

The cases of South Africa and East Timor, agreed Robinson and Caswell, highlight a number of tensions inherent in the ownership and use of human rights archives. Resistance leaders who enter politics after working to change an unjust regime, they noted, are frequently lionized, an image that can be challenged by archival documents.

At the same time, they lead regimes that are imperfect and often disinclined to pursue a human rights agenda. Nor do they always support open access to archives. For example, the final say on who is permitted access to the archive created by the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor currently resides with that country’s president.

Robinson and Caswell seek to make the issues related to human rights archives comprehensible to active human rights workers, who need guidance on creating archives from the stashes of documents that currently overwhelm their offices. It is their hope that the guidelines created by their project will make the same issues relevant to human rights organizations around the world. Based on their principal audience of human rights organizations in Cambodia, East Timor and Indonesia, the website created for the guidelines may eventually grow to become a global resource.

Prior to becoming an historian of Southeast Asian history and politics, Geoffrey Robinson served as Head of Research for Island Southeast Asia at Amnesty International in London for six years. He joined the history faculty of UCLA in 1997. In 1999, he took a leave of absence to serve as Political Affairs Officer with the United Nations in East Timor for six months.

Michelle Caswell joined the UCLA Information Studies Department in 2012. Her recent research, to be published as “Archiving the Unspeakable,” examines how mug shots of Khmer Rouge prisoners began as bureaucratic documents, became included in archives, were digitized, and finally, used by survivors and family members to crate narratives about the regime and to memorialize the dead. Caswell is the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archives, which documents the stories of Americans from South Asia and their diaspora communities.

Housed at UC Santa Cruz and administered by its Center for Global, International and Regional Studies, the Pacific Rim Research Program is a multi-campus program established to encourage Pacific Rim research on the ten University of California campuses. It sponsors a competitive grants program that provides funds for University of California faculty and graduate students who do research on Pacific Rim topics in a variety of disciplines. At UCLA, the PRRP program is administered by the Asia Institute.