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No access. How the state of peacebuilding archives undermines democracy

Foto: Katrin Travouillon

The United Nations took on a leading role to build democratic state institutions and a stable peace in a multitude of peacebuilding missions since the 1990s.The archives documenting the UN-led state- and nationbuilding processes, however, are often difficult or impossible to access, inadequately stored, incomplete, or already entirely lost. Available collections are overwhelmingly stored outside of the countries whose history they document: The most comprehensive collections are currently owned by university libraries in the United States, France, or Australia. Other records are stored in warehouses in New York City, still waiting to be processed and cataloged by the United Nations. Better-curated archives are often the result of the private initiative of individual former UN staff members who served in the respective missions. They diligently collected materials and donated their possessions to libraries or kept them in private collections – often operating in a legal grey zone. Many private collectors continue to function as the sole gatekeepers of highly important documents that provide insights into the decision-making processes and events on the ground during these consequential times.  Their decision as to who does and who does not get to access those documents is often based on their informal assessments of scholars’ intentions – specifically, how favorable or unfavorable the scholar is likely to present the events (and therefore the collector’s role in the intervention).

Preliminary interviews and informal conversations with archival experts and former members of the missions by the project investigators revealed that there was already a profound lack of attention to the proper documentation of UN activities during the missions. Former UN officials described their frustration with the lack of policies in this regard, which they said undermined crucial processes and mechanism of accountability. Some even reported that they tried in vain to create a sense of urgency about this problem with the UN leadership.  Furthermore, archival experts reported about unsuccessful attempts on their part to raise awareness for the fact that the UN does not appear to have a coherent policy or strategy to archive important documents and ensure public accessibility after the end of missions. Scholars, students, and policy makers in the affected countries frequently express their frustration with the fact that they are unable to access these records. Without funding opportunities, the authority to interpret the history of their countries and the UN missions mostly remains with Western scholars, who are overwhelmingly better funded, less impacted by visa restrictions, and therefore much more mobile.

The legitimacy of external state- and peacebuilding missions is grounded in their claim to be motivated by the very goals of democratization, the building of new, accountable institutions, and the support of local ownership over these social and political reforms.

This cooperation project will establish how past and current ad-hoc approaches that prevail with regard to data collection, storage, and accessibility before, during, and after UN peacebuilding interventions have hindered the sustainability of democratic institution building, exacerbated epistemic inequalities, and thereby effectively undermined the fundamental principles of interventions.

During two research visits (one at the Philipps University Marburg and one at the Australian National University in Canberra) the project investigators will bring together archivists and scholarly experts from a variety of research backgrounds. We aim to establish the scope of the issue and collect the evidence necessary to develop effective strategies in order to make the problematic access to archives an explicit part of the discussion over the trajectory and prospect of those large-scale political reform projects.

Building on important work in other disciplines, such as archival and colonial studies, the project wants peacebuilding studies to account for the fact that archives documenting the work of interventions are not merely important sources for research. They are physical spaces where individual, institutional, and collective memories reside. In particular for those, who are directly affected by the reforms instigated during state and peacebuilding missions, the possibility to effectively participate in shaping those memories, to communicate their ongoing relevance for the post-intervention order, and to effectively participate in the crucial processes of social and political transformation is therefore contingent on access to those records.

Project period: 2020-2021
Funding institution: German Research Foundation
Principal Investigators: Dr. Werner Distler and Dr. Katrin Travouillon