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The Power of Archives in Human Rights Advocacy

February 1, 2012

Perhaps you all have read about the following story that happened in Guatemala. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, thousands and thousands of people had been executed, and made to disappear by the national secret police. For years, human rights advocates had tried to nail down those people who are responsible for all these atrocities, but they couldn’t do anything because of the absence of concrete evidence. And in 2005, by accident, a huge amount of police records and archives testifying to those crimes were discovered in a run-down factory that had actually been used as a storeroom for ammunition for the secret police. And because of this discovery, they were able to make some arrests and even had some perpetrators brought to court, some of whom actually went to jail.

This is the power of archives. Without archives, much of human rights work cannot happen. When we are talking about archives, we mean those records that were created by an organization, or even by an individual, as a result of official business. The important thing is that records created in such a way have to be kept and man- aged professionally, as evidence of the business activities concerned. As such, records are “evidence” of the whole business process; they are the basis for accountability.

Archivists usually make a distinction between “records” and “archives.” Records refer to those which are still in active use by an organization. But when records have completed their administrative function, and if they have been appraised by an archivist to possess historical value, they will then be sent to the organization’s archives for permanent retention. So, there are “records” and there are “archives.”

In Hong Kong, there is no archives law! But this is not the case in almost all the rest of the world. In jurisdictions where there are archive laws, first of all, public servants are obliged by law to create records as a result of conducting their official business. Specifically, the records’ proper management, appraisal for permanent value, and storage as archives or historical records, are all required by law.

In Hong Kong, not having an archives law means that public servants in Hong Kong are not required by law to create records. Second, there is no requirement by law to manage these records properly and professionally. So that explains why many of the professional record managers and archivists in the Hong Kong government services have left one by one, because there is no use for them there—the records don’t need to be kept or managed properly.

And third, the absence of an archives law means that when government records finish their administrative function in the office, most of them fail to reach the archives. I was the director of the Government Records Service for years. Yet, because there was no law to support me, I could not go to bureaus and departments and ask what they were doing with their records. But the Hong Kong government does have these so-called administrative guidelines which say that if departments and bureaus want to destroy their records, they have to seek the endorsement and approval from the Government Records Service Director. But most of the time they don’t because guidelines are not law. If officials choose not to observe the guidelines, there is no consequence for them!

There was a recent report about the relocation of the Central Government Offices to the Tamar site on the harbor front.1 Because of the move, six million pieces of records were destroyed. We are talking here about the move of bureaus, not just departments. Records created by bureaus are the most important records in the Hong Kong government.2 They are records relating to policymaking and deliberation. We have no knowledge of what kind of records were destroyed, but as records from the bureaus, the six million records destroyed must be important. When asked why they got rid of the records, the administration replied by saying that they already “had approval from the Government Record Service Director, in accordance with the guidelines.” As far as these officials are concerned, they haven’t done anything wrong, and they haven’t violated any Hong Kong law.

Then what’s wrong?  In order to approve the destruction of a set of records, the Government Records Service Director must possess knowledge, skill, and experience in records appraisal. In order to be able to perform this duty, he or she must be educated and trained in this highly complicated archival duty for years, before he or she is qualified to say, “Ok, this record we keep … this record we don’t need.”

But what we have in the Government Records Service is a director who is just an executive officer, a general grade staff person, who has been posted there for just three years. He had no training whatsoever in archives and appraisal, and he is the guy who gave the order for the destruction of the six million records.

Do you remember the judicial review case a few years ago involving four Falun Gong members who had been denied entry to Hong Kong? Judge Michael Hartman hearing the case was appalled when he found out there were no immigration records whatsoever relating to these Falun Gong members. The Immigration Department head, Tommy Tong—he’s now the head of ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption—admitted that relevant records had been destroyed.  And then the case was brought to the Court of Appeals, and Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma again was equally appalled by the same situation. He said that probably the decision on the case would have gone the other way if there had been records.3

Editors’ Notes

1. The relocation was completed in the summer of 2011. ^

2. The twelve bureaus form the Government Secretariat of Hong Kong, the administrative arm of the Hong Kong government. ^

3. After being denied entry into Hong Kong for what the Hong Kong Immigration Department claimed to be “security” reasons, the four Falun Gong practitioners brought suit against the Director of Immigration, alleging discrimination on religious grounds. In 2009, Judge Geoffrey Ma of the Court of Appeal, despite finding that the government had breached the “duty of candour, ” ruled in the government’s favor. See Chu Woan-Chyi and Others v. Director of Immigration, CACV119/2007 (2009), http://legalref.judiciary.gov.hk/lrs/common/ju/ju_frame.jsp?DIS=67425. ^

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