EJIL:The Podcast! Episode 16 – Disputing Archives

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This podcast, the third in the series ‘Reckonings with Europe: Past and Present’ by Surabhi Ranganathan and Megan Donaldson, takes up the archive as an object through which relations between past and present are negotiated.

Archives can take many forms, but the episode focuses on those most familiar to international lawyers—official and state archives. Such archives function as a marker of sovereignty, and an important resource for legal claim-making, as well as for the writing of history. Understandably, then, changes to political organization—decolonization, and succession of states—pose questions about who should have control of these archives; and any effort to work with these archives in the writing of history demands critical reflection on the particular, and partial, ways they are constituted. To explore these issues, the hosts are joined by James Lowry, Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, Queens College, City University of New York (and editor of volumes on Displaced Archives and Disputed ArchivalHeritage), and Meredith Terretta, Professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, currently researching a monograph titled Claimants, Advocates and Disrupters in Africa’s Internationally Supervised Territories (forthcoming).

The episode begins with the role of international law in addressing what have come to be called ‘disputed archives’. The 1983 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of State Property, Archives and Debts is not yet in force, and there is no other generally applicable legal framework. As with contested cultural heritage (discussed in the episode on Loot!), law now jostles with rapidly-evolving professional and ethical norms being articulated by archivists: notions of shared archival heritage, or an ethics of care. The ethical dimension is pressing, as many of these disputed archives, while officially created, contain or reflect searing personal experiences, and yet are physically inaccessible to those whose lives or ancestors they capture. However, even these alternative normative frameworks struggle to secure widespread acceptance; where states do ‘repatriate’ archives today, this is on an ad hoc, bilaterally negotiated basis, and often bound up with political or economic imperatives.

The episode then turns to the question of what kinds of histories these archives can generate. Despite their uniqueness and value, official archives are records of a particular kind, and writing histories that get beyond the perspective of dominant states requires looking through and beyond official archives. Meredith Terretta gives a sense of this through her research on the work of anticolonialist advocate lawyers and rights claimants in the African mandate territories. For Terretta’s project, official archives are essentially archives of surveillance: state authorities and intelligence agencies keeping an eye on advocate lawyers who might unsettle colonial authority. While state archives help identify these lawyers, they give little insight into the lawyers themselves, or the ways they deploy legal arguments in colonial and metropolitan courts, or the UN Fourth Committee and Trusteeship Council. For this, Terretta looks to the writings of anticolonialist lawyers themselves, and any personal archives they have left. However, even the corpus of personal papers is highly uneven: white lawyers were much more likely to keep records and donate them to public repositories, leaving black and pan-African legal advocacy under-represented in historical accounts.

From these foundations the episode moves to a more open-ended reflection on what lawyers and historians look for in the archive, and about the ethics and equity of archives. James Lowry highlights that the absence of any international legal framework has left archivists debating the future of these records in the language of the colonisers: the public law in European states governing national archives. There are also major questions about why we focus on the archives we do: drawing on work by Stanley Griffin, James highlights the fact that a continued focus on transactional records of Caribbean slave trading, for example, might leave surviving oral traditions at risk. As Meredith notes, digitization projects can merely amplify the skewed focus on some records over others, prioritizing those of interest to foreign historians. Here, the historical enterprise can itself verge on the extractive. The freedom of a small group of historians to envisage ambitious, multi-archival projects offers a privileged view not available to the descendants of those whose lives are recorded. 


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