30.05.2013 - Communication & Information Sector

Conference in Gwangju commemorated Memory of the World human rights records

Human Rights Documentary Heritage 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime. © Gwangju Metropolitan City Hall

An international conference, held from 15 to 18 May 2013 in Gwangju, Republic of Korea, as part of the 2013 World Human Rights Cities Forum, commemorated inscriptions of 14 institutions holding items on the Memory of the World (MoW) Register relating to human rights. Representatives from all regions stressed the importance of ensuring recognition of the value of human rights records and described solutions necessary to protect and manage such collections.

In May 2011 the Human Rights documentary heritage of the Republic of Korea on the 1980 Archives for the May 18th Democratic Uprising against Military Regime, was inscribed on the Memory of the World International Register.

The events, which took place in Gwangju between 18 and 27 May 1980, after a second military coup in the country, led to a 10-day resistance, during which 165 citizens died in and around Gwangju. 76 people went missing, 3,383 were injured, and 1,476 were arrested, affecting 5,100 in total. In addition, 102 additional people later died due to injuries incurred. Survivors were far from unscathed with many reporting mental health problems. The physical and emotional trauma left an indelible mark on those who experienced the events first-hand.

For years the military government enforced a strict prohibition on public discussion of the traumatic events of May 1980. However, the consequent efforts of the bereaved families triggered a large scale democratic struggle that culminated in the citizens of Korea being awarded a direct vote, and the “Gwangju Riot” being officially renamed “the May 18th Democratic Uprising” by the then President. In 1995 a special law pertaining to the punishment of the perpetrators was enacted by the National Assembly. Around the same time, legal action was initiated against two former presidents and the senior staff responsible for the brutal suppression (sentencing of the Supreme Court, occurred in April 1997). Participants of the uprising were subsequently found not guilty and the victims received compensation for their losses. Today, May 18th is a national holiday in Korea.

The items inscribed on the MoW Register include administrative documents of the central government as well as records of investigation and trials by military judicial institutes; statements, declarations, hand-written posters and reporters' notebooks that reveal the seriousness of the situation; and documents produced by the National Assembly and Supreme Court aimed at restoring the reputation of the people and discovering the truth about the incidents.

More than 30 years after the May 18th Democratic Uprising in Gwangju, the city and its citizens as well as the people of Korea are eager to proclaim the universality of the lessons learnt from their history in the spirit of promoting the importance of democracy and respect of human rights worldwide. In this context, the City has proposed to promote the preservation of human rights records.

Consequently, from 15 to 18 May 2013, an international conference was organized in Gwangju, with the generous support of the Gwangju Metropolitan City and the Committee for the Establishment of the 5.18 Archive. This Conference, which was part of the 2013 World Human Rights Cities Forum, commemorated inscriptions of 14 institutions holding items on the MoW register relating to human rights. Representatives from all regions described the particular problems and solutions needed to protect and manage such collections. Items related to human rights violations or uprisings were presented by Australia, Barbados, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Poland, Philippines, Poland and Uruguay.

Some collections were related to examples of peaceful change in human rights conditions. These concerned the Human Chain of the Baltic Way submitted by Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition from New Zealand; and the Original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789, 1791) from France.

Participants stressed the importance of ensuring continuous recognition of the value and significance of human rights records. They focused on raising public awareness of the significance of preserving human rights records as the foundations to peace and democracy and urged all holders of such records to share and promote their accessibility for current and future generations. They also underlined the importance of using those records for educational purposes in the aim of perpetuating the messages and lessons learnt, so that humankind does not see any more of those alarming events repeated.

They also explored possible ways of collaboration among institutions by establishing a network that will work towards enhancing cooperation to preserve, share, encourage research, raise awareness of, and identify other human rights records. Finally, they agreed to strive to make human rights records accessible to all people in the world by supporting the creation of exhibitions and other means of publication.

UNESCO, under the auspices of the Memory of the World Programme, was requested to further explore the issues dealt with in the meeting: preservation, promotion, utilization, acquisition and registration of human rights records.

The full text of the Gwangju Declaration is available online: please click here.

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