Human rights: The search for truth and reconciliation

© Chilean National Archive/Picture from the Human Rights Archive of Chile

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register includes archives relating to human rights abuses in Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Cambodia and the Baltic States. They describe not only the horrors that occurred in those countries but also, in some cases, document resistance to the abuses. All of them highlight the need to reveal the truth of the past to heal their countries and consolidate democratic values.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The motto may have been coined over 200 years ago during the French Revolution, but the rights it implies still prove difficult to impose or guarantee in many countries across the world today.

Another outcome of that period in France was the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of which the original handwritten version is inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The document is one of the foundations on which world human rights are based. But guaranteeing comprehensive human rights has proven to be very difficult to achieve, and recent history is, unfortunately, littered with examples of countries failing to respect the rights of its citizens.

In Latin America for example, several countries were part of a campaign of political repression by right-wing military dictatorships, implemented in 1975 and known as Plan Condor. This involved the assassination of opponents, forced disappearances of people, extra-judicial killings, repression and other serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Plan was modelled on Rafael L Trujillo’s highly effective system of surveillance in the Dominican Republic where state repression lasted throughout the tyrannical rule of Trujillo, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961.It was the most oppressive regime ever seen in Latin America.

But what these countries had in common was internal resistance to these violations of rights and a desire, today, to make public the horrors of this period in an effort to heal the wounds of the nations. In Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, attempts have been made to bring those responsible for the atrocities to justice and their records are now listed on the Memory of the World Register.

Although geographically very remote from Latin America, Cambodia also experienced sever human rights violations from 1975 to 1979, when the country was ruled by the Cambodian communist movement, the Khmer Rouge. In the space of just 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, an estimated two to three million people or 25 to 30 per cent of the population lost their lives. They died from famine resulting from the party’s agricultural reform, forced labour, torture, execution and the purging of perceived enemies within the party, to name but these few. Over 15,000 people passed through the infamous Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison and interrogation centre in the capital, Phnom Penh. Only a handful of them survived the ordeal. 

As with the Latin America countries, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum archive is included in the Memory of the World register and it is hoped that knowledge of the horrors that took place will help prevent the same thing from happening again.

The story of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, is not one of citizens fighting fellow countrymen, but one of external control and secret pacts. A few days before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, at the start of the Second World War, the Nazi regime signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.

A secret protocol appended to the agreement divided eastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence. The Baltic States fell under Moscow, and in 1940 they were annexed and organized as Soviet republics. However, until 1989 the Soviet Union denied the existence of the secret deal. This changed only after a peaceful demonstration, known as the Baltic Way, which took place on 23 August 1989.

On that day, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the pact, more than a million people joined hands to create a human chain spanning over 600 km across the three states. The pro-independence groups who organised the protest demanded recognition of the secret clauses of the pact. The Baltic Way quickly led to all three countries declaring their independence.

The fact that ordinary people, through social unity and joint commitment, could bring about peaceful change encouraged democratic movements throughout the Soviet Union.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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