Published: Monday, 12/17/2012 5:49 pm EST
Last Updated: Monday, 12/17/2012 6:23 pm EST
One of Canada’s greatest archivists, Arthur Doughty, once said: “Of all national assets, archives are the most precious: they are the gift of one generation to another, and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”
Archives are an important source of knowledge, heritage, and memory. And having recently visited Guatemala’s National Police Historical Archives during my state visit to that country, I have also seen the remarkable power of archives to heal the wounds of a nation.
To explain: between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was devastated by a civil war that left an estimated 200,000 people dead and more than 45,000 disappeared. With the 1996 peace accord, the conflict finally ended and Guatemala’s government and civil society began to pick up the pieces, resolving to work together in the hope of a brighter future.
And then something extraordinary happened.
On a summer day in 2005, an explosion in a run-down munitions storehouse in Guatemala City led to the chance discovery of the National Police Historical Archives. While inspecting what remained of the building, officials from Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman’s office found roomfuls of documents, stacked floor-to-ceiling, containing information on those considered enemies of the military dictatorship that ruled during the civil war. The files contained information on politically motivated kidnappings, murders, and assassinations, as well as identification cards, photographs, and even the daily walking routes of citizens.
In essence, the discovery of the archives meant the recovery of Guatemala’s official memory, and the pursuit of justice began in earnest.
Today, the National Police has been disbanded and replaced by Guatemala’s National Civil Police, and the newfound archives are a catalyst in the identification and prosecution of wartime human rights violations. As governor general of Canada and as a former professor and dean of law, I was honoured during my state visit to Guatemala in early December to visit the National Police Historical Archives and to learn more about the tens of millions of documents that are being classified and digitized with the help of a number of foreign countries, including Canada.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of these records to Guatemalans who suffered during the civil war. By providing evidence for the prosecution of crimes against humanity, the archives are helping to ensure the victims’ right to justice.
Canadians place a high priority on human rights and the rule of law—by which I mean the constant, relentless pursuit of justice. I am therefore pleased to note the governments of Canada and of Guatemala are working closely with civil-society partners to redress the injustices of the past and to lay the foundations for a better future.
I am also delighted to witness the birth of a new partnership between the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, of which I am patron, and the Guatemalan Reconciliation Memorial and Museum. As we undertake our own journey of residential school reconciliation here in Canada, I am certain that our two countries can benefit from the sharing of ideas and experiences.
At first glance, Canada and Guatemala may appear a study in contrasts, but as peoples we share a dream of building smarter, more caring societies and a fairer, more just world. As close friends and partners in the Americas, let us therefore build together.
David Johnston is the governor general of Canada. He just returned from a Nov. 30 to Dec. 7 visit to Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala.