Preserving History: The Importance of Archives at the Extraordinary Chambers

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) currently faces pressing challenges, including the health of Khieu Samphan, an accused along with Nuon Chea in the current Case 002/02; and the apparent refusal of Cambodian Judicial Police to carry out court orders. But the court also faces a number of long term challenges. Some of these, such as fundraising, are well known but others aren’t as obvious and don’t receive sufficient attention. One often overlooked long term challenge is preserving the ECCC’s archives.

One of the central reasons for creating the ECCC is to help establish the historical record of Khmer Rouge era crimes and increase our understanding of that era. The ECCC’s archives are a critical component of that effort. The court and its founding partners, the UN and the government of Cambodia, are responsible for establishing a system to preserve the records of the court and make them available to the public. Unfortunately, efforts to accomplish this seem to be stalled.

The ECCC is responsible for ensuring that the court’s archives are complete, accessible, and preserved for perpetuity. This is not a simple task. The court must first determine what information should be kept confidential and for how long, in order to protect legitimate privacy interests. The system must preserve the archives from deterioration and destruction from both the passage of time and use. Finally, the archives must be fully and freely available to Cambodians and non-Cambodians alike, without risk of censorship or unreasonable expense or control.

The court must also endeavor to provide tools to make the archives easily accessible to the public. The great majority of the court documents that will make up the archives will be in—or could be converted to—digital form. This greatly simplifies the tasks of preserving the documents and making them widely available.  Once the basic archive is established and basic tools for accessibility created, educators, NGOs, survivors, and others, will be able to use the archives.

Fortunately, a tool being developed by the Virtual Tribunal Project, a partnership of the War Crimes Studies Center at the University of California Berkeley, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the East-West Center in Honolulu offers advanced search functions and educational modules and would provide the kind of access necessary to meet the needs of Cambodians.  Unfortunately, it appears that the adoption of this tool is stalled by a lack of leadership at the court and inadequate funding by the donor community.

NGOs and court officials have expressed concerns about the preservation of and access to the archives. The court has not publicly disclosed the status of the archive project and what progress, if any, has been made. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that the court, the government, or outside entities want to control the content of the archives or benefit economically from them. The unresolved question of who will pay for the ongoing maintenance and control of the project also has a bearing on the long-term integrity of the archives.  Like many technical skills necessary for running the court, Cambodian experience and expertise is limited and the UN—supported by the court’s donors—must step in to ensure the project’s viability.

The ECCC archives are a critical legacy of the institution: without them, the court’s work cannot be considered complete or successful. The UN and the court’s donors should press now for, at least, a pilot project that archives the files from Case 001. If this task is passively left to the Cambodian side of the court or the Cambodian government, it is unlikely happen, or will not happen in a manner consistent with the standards of completion, preservation, and free accessibility. The ECCC has the potential to leave a powerful legacy—but that legacy will be squandered if the court’s archives are not properly preserved, organized, and made available to the public.



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