Category Archives: Human Rights Documentation Initiative

Guatemalan Human Rights Archive in Imminent Peril

In recent weeks, actions taken by the government of Guatemala have put in jeopardy the future of the Historical Archive of the National Police of Guatemala (AHPN), a human rights archive with which LLILAS Benson and other units at the University of Texas at Austin have partnered since 2011.

In a keynote speech to the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM), delivered on June 27 at the University of Texas at Austin,  Guatemalan human rights activist Gustavo Meoño, former director of the AHPN, revealed some of the most recent events undermining the archive, including a drastic reduction of staff and an imminent takeover by the country’s Ministry of Culture, both of which have serious implications for the AHPN’s operation and integrity.

Gustavo Meoño presents the keynote address at the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials, held at The University of Texas at Austin in June 2019. Photo: Daniel Hublein.

The significance of this news cannot be overstated. The AHPN contains records of Guatemala’s former National Police dating back more than a century. Its contents relating to the country’s 36-year armed conflict have been crucial in uncovering the fate of tens of thousands of Guatemalans during the most violent years of civil strife. “Since its discovery in 2005, the AHPN has played a central role in Guatemala’s attempts to reckon with its bloody past,” according to the National Security Archive, an NGO in Washington DC that advocates against government secrecy. The records “have been relied upon by families of the disappeared, scholars, and prosecutors. The institution has become a model across Latin America and around the world for the rescue and preservation of vital historical records,” an article dated May 30, 2019, states.

AHPN has become a model for the rescue and preservation of vital historical and human rights records.

Meoño served as director of the AHPN from 2005 until his abrupt removal in August 2018 at the hands of the Guatemalan government and the United Nations Development Office; he subsequently fled with his family to Argentina amid death threats and intimidation. In the weeks since his announcement in Austin, the fate of the AHPN has become even more uncertain. On July 10, the Ministry of Culture and Sports, which now oversees the archive, dismissed Anna Carla Ericastilla, longtime director of Guatemala’s national archive, the Archivo General de Centro América (AGCA, AHPN’s parent archive), amid accusations that she had illegally allowed access to the archive to entities outside the country, such as the University of Texas at Austin, and that she had collected donor contributions to pay archive personnel unbeknown to the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

A scanned document appears on the screen as part of the digitization process. Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

According to the AHPN website hosted by the University of Texas Libraries, “The AHPN Digital Archive is a collaborative project of the University of Texas’ Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, and Benson Latin American Collection, with the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala.” As faculty directors of the aforementioned institutions made clear in a recent letter to Guatemala’s minister and vice-minister of Culture and Sports, the collaboration with the AHPN and its parent archive, the AGCA, “has always been open, public, and fully in compliance with the laws of Guatemala and the United States.”

Daniel Brinks (l), co-director of the Rapoport Center; Virginia Garrard, director of LLILAS Benson; and Gustavo Meoño, former director of AHPN, at a July 2018 meeting in Guatemala. Photo: Hannah Alpert-Abrams.

Documents from the AHPN have been used in 14 trials prosecuting human rights abuses, said Meoño. These include the 1980 burning by police of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City with 37 Indigenous protestors shut inside; and the 1981 abduction, rape, and torture of Emma Molina Theissen along with the subsequent forced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio. Preservation efforts have prioritized documents from the worst years of government-sponsored terror, 1975–1985, according to Meoño. All told, there were almost 200,000 victims of the armed conflict, including the disappeared. “Indeed, it may be the Police Archive’s crucial contributions to human rights trials that caused the government of President Jimmy Morales to seek to control the repository and fire its director,” wrote the NSA last August.

Photo courtesy Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, Guatemala.

The fate of the AHPN has particular resonance for The University of Texas at Austin, and in particular, for LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections and the UT Libraries, who, through their partnership with the AHPN, have successfully secured and posted online digital copies of one-third of the more than 60 million documents in the archive—an estimated 8 linear kilometers of material. Preservation of the archive’s contents has been paramount since the documents were discovered, haphazardly stored, by the Guatemalan Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor (Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos, or PDH) in filthy, rat-infested buildings that were part of a sprawling police base located in a Guatemala City neighborhood.

Guatemala will elect a new government in August. The AHPN’s Texas partners will be among the international community of human rights advocates watching closely to see what that bodes for the AHPN and the future of truth and restorative justice in Guatemala.


See related posts: 21 Years of Peace;, 21 Million Documents21 años de paz, 21 millones de documentos; Seminar Commemorates Collaboration with Guatemala on Archives and Human Rights

Partnering to Preserve and Persevere: The Genocide Archive of Rwanda

Photos of victims of the Rwandan Genocide.

On June 9 — International Archives Day — the Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI) partners Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre launched a new, greatly updated and expanded online Genocide Archive of Rwanda (http://www.genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw).

One of the most important resources online documenting the causes, processes, and consequences of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, GAR demonstrates the generative impact that the Libraries’ programming can have. The HRDI project, begun in Rwanda in 2008, engaged staff and volunteers at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, a museum and documentation center for education and memory in Rwanda, to combine their personal experiences, deep knowledge, and historical resources with the technical expertise at UT Libraries in order to preserve and provide access to the fragile record of the Genocide that was daily being lost.

T-Kay Sangwand and Christian Kelleher meet with Rwandan officials.The first version of GAR, developed by the Libraries’ Technology Integration Services, Information Technology Architecture and Strategy, and Digitization Services departments using Glifos media software, was installed on a laptop and hand-carried by me and human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand to Rwanda, where it spent the next year demoing the project to build local community, government, and international support.

Launched online in 2010, GAR enabled people in Rwanda and around the world to hear testimonies from Genocide survivors as well as perpetrators and elders in Rwanda about their experiences of Genocide, its root causes, and the lives and society that it destroyed. Photographs and historical documents were collected and digitized by Aegis Trust’s Rwandan staff to be added to the Archives at the Kigali Memorial Centre.Archive and preserved digitally by UT Libraries, and soon UTL was consulting on construction of a climate-controlled physical archive in Kigali in addition to the online digital archive.

The new Genocide Archive of Rwanda moves the archive to the cloud and integrates new mapping features, improved access to documents and photographs, and interactive tours of memorial sites around the country. The new site also includes features to engage youth in peace-building, and highlights important community renewal and reconciliation programs.

When recently retired Vice Provost Dr. Fred Heath and I attended the Kwibuka 20 commemoration ceremonies marking 20 years since the Genocide, Rwandan president Paul Kagame stated that, “Historical clarity is a duty of memory that we cannot escape. Behind the words ‘Never Again’, there is a story whose truth must be told in full, no matter how uncomfortable.” Born in the basement at Perry-Castañeda Library, and now managed in the cloud by a team of new information professionals in Rwanda, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda is a resource that preserves and gives clarity to the 1994 Genocide in support of memory, reconciliation, education, and scholarship in Rwanda, Texas, and around the globe.

The global impact of the University of Texas Libraries is made possible in large part to the financial support of individual, corporate and foundation donors. To contribute to projects like the Human Rights Digitization Project, please contact Natalie Moore or visit our online giving page today.

Chat with a Rwandan Youth Leader

Aegis Trust Youth Ambassador Dydine Umunyana. Photo by Christian Kelleher.
Aegis Trust Youth Ambassador Dydine Umunyana. Photo by Christian Kelleher.

For a little over two weeks in January and February, UT Libraries was the home base for a visit by Rwandan Dydine Umunyana who works with Aegis Trust, a project partner with the Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative. HRDI project manager and Benson Collection archivist Christian Kelleher sat down with Dydine to ask her about her work in the U.S.

We’re so excited to have you here, Dydine. Can you tell me what brought you to the U.S.?

I came to the U.S. to advocate for young people from my country and to bring awareness to youth internationally as a Youth Ambassador for Peace from Aegis Trust, a nonprofit organization that combats genocide around the world. Aegis is based in England where they run the National Holocaust Center and Museum, and they help manage the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.

UT Libraries connected to Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial through our partnership to preserve documentation of the 1994 Genocide. How did you first get involved with Aegis Trust?

In 2009, I was selected as one of 30 influential students at my high school and they brought us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial to learn the real history of my country and to go through their peace-building education program. The goal of the peace-building education program is to learn from the past, to help to stop cycles of hatred and be able to build the future. A few years later, as a result of what I had learned from the peace-building education program, I started a nonprofit company Umbrella Cinema Promoters that educates young women in Rwanda to share their own stories through film. We had a workshop in 2013 and launched the organization then, and that’s when I reconnected with Aegis Trust and was appointed a Youth Ambassador.

Tell me more about your filmmaking work!

After my high school I wasn’t able to continue my university studies, as so many young people in Rwanda. I had experience as a singer and songwriter, and I was asked to compose a song for a short film. I had to spend a week in the studio composing the song and learning the story of the film, and I also learned how they were doing things about filming and scriptwriting and I became so much interested in how they were making the film. So I went home and began writing a script for my own short film. In Rwanda you can’t do shooting of a film without permission from the government, so I went to the Ministry of Sport and Culture for a recommendation letter but they refused because I didn’t have a company that I worked for. I got the idea that I probably wasn’t the only young person who had ideas but no organization for support, so I decided I should start my own nonprofit company for that purpose, to encourage and empower young women to tell their own stories. I met some students from USC who were in Rwanda and they asked if I had a project and I took my script and called all my friends and we shot my first short film about the problem of HIV in Rwanda.

What have you done during your time visiting the University of Texas?

I’ve done a lot! I toured UT and it was tiring because of how big it is. I’ve been here for more than two weeks and I have had so many meetings engaging and bringing awareness about what’s going on in post conflict countries. I met with students in the White Rose Society at Texas Hillel and from Amnesty International, and with professors in so many departments like Women’s and Gender Studies and Theater and more. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the library because of the partnership between you and Aegis Trust and the Rwanda Genocide Archive.

And beyond UT, what have been some of the things you’ve done in Austin?

I met with Greg Kwedar who is produc