SAA Statement on Iraqi Archives

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) is deeply concerned by several recent news reports that suggest that contemporary and historical records in Iraq are threatened as a result of the current conflict in that country. SAA urges that the protection of Iraq's documentary heritage be made a priority during the reconstruction of Iraq.

Accounts in the news media suggest that there have been deliberate attempts to destroy the records of oppression in order to hide evidence of past crimes. Other stories highlight the destruction of records in order to remove evidence of property ownership, citizenship, or nationality. Still others describe random acts of violence that threaten the cultural history of the country.

For Iraq to become a stable, democratic, and prosperous nation, its documentary heritage must be managed and preserved. Government records safeguard the rights and freedoms that citizens enjoy and are vital to the health and well being of a nation.

When a society allows its government to operate in secret, basic freedoms are gradually eroded. In South Africa, records of the apartheid regime were consciously destroyed in order to hide evidence of wrongdoing. In the former Yugoslavia, many documents were destroyed in the process of "ethnic cleansing," making it almost impossible for rightful owners to assert their claim to property. The rights of every Iraqi are at risk today and long into the future by the loss of records.

We all share Iraq's culture and history. Written records first appeared in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, the cradle of Western civilization. The loss of this heritage would not only hurt the Iraq people; it would also make it harder for Americans to understand our culture and values.

Every effort should be made to locate and preserve in secure custody all documents and archives relating to the Iraqi state, its security forces, the daily operation of the government, and the history of the nation. Emergency measures should be taken to recover records that may have been discarded, abandoned, looted, or abused. Such an effort will assist in the prosecution of former officers of the Iraqi regime as well as provide a firm legal foundation for future economic development.

The new government of Iraq will also need a professionally managed archival system. SAA urges that reconstruction efforts include funds to rebuild the archives of Iraq. Once a stable archival program is in place, any documents that may have been secured for the purpose of short-term preservation should be returned to Iraqi archivists.

Without records, Iraqi officials cannot be held accountable. Without records, citizens cannot exercise their rights. Without records, a stable economic environment cannot emerge. And without records, the Iraqi people as well as the citizens of the world lose an important part of our shared cultural heritage. Immediate and substantial efforts must be made to protect and reconstruct Iraq's documentary infrastructure. America should cooperate with the International Council on Archives, UNESCO, and other international organizations working to preserve Iraq's cultural heritage.

—Approved by Council, April 2003