United Nations New York
Dr. Roland Burke, La Trobe University, Melbourne, October 2011
The UN archives represent an outstanding resource for scholars of transnational history and international organizations. For my project on the impact of decolonization on the human rights program, the records revealed key moments of the interior story that lay behind the official documentation and meeting transcript, and exposed the material structures that sustained the whole UN rights endeavor. From Secretary-General U Thant’s travel preparation for the 1968 World Conference on Human Rights, to human rights chief Marc Schreiber’s reflections on the advisory services system, through to the exhausting task of dealing with the sheer volume of individual letters and petitions, the holdings rendered the everyday world with powerful clarity. It gave access to the life of those individuals that supported the abstract argument and often rarified debate of the high diplomatic realm. It was not as philosophically rich or explicitly political as foreign service records or debate proceedings, but this was a key part of the archive’s value, and its novelty. The unreal space of the UN’s Third Committee and Commission on Human Rights ceased to be disembodied voices shouted across the chamber. The ethereal global mobility of ideas and diplomats was substantiated with the corporeal evidence of flights, hotels, and budgets.
As a site to conduct research, the procedures and staff at the archive were perhaps the friendliest and most efficient I encountered in my doctoral candidature. The skill and courtesy of the archivists was apparent from before I arrived, when the chief librarian provided a highly specific list of holdings via email – holdings that enhanced my ability to prepare a competitive university grant application. Once at the archive, records were retrieved with remarkable agility and speed; rarely was there any period where I was left awaiting further materials. It enabled an exceptionally high-tempo of research, which was particularly helpful for a foreign scholar with only a limited time to survey a huge body of potential documentation. Boxes were delivered with such speed and accuracy that across my entire campaign of work, the principal bottleneck was my own intellectual and physical stamina. For students engaged in research that touches on international organizations, it is a highly valuable complement to those more familiar state, NGO, and personal archives.
Dr. Alanna O'Malley, European University Institute, January 2013
An almost anonymous door on a New York street leads to what is one of the most well-organized and valuable archive facilities for scholars of international history. Much has been written about the events which took place in the Congo during the independence crisis from 1960-1964, but the memos, cables and records of the UN reveal how pivotal discussions in New York were to events on the ground in Kinshasa. In addition, cables and correspondence between the Office of the Secretary-General, UN officials in the Congo and members of the Congolese Government offer a voice to the Congolese. Original telegrams chart the evolution of the relationship between the UN and the Congo through the difficult ordeal of independence, at times one of coordination and cooperation and at others a strained and taxing alliance.
One of the reasons for the tensions in this fraught partnership were the changing motives and roles of other countries in the Congo, evident both in their actions on the ground but also through their stance in New York. This was the central arena for the project I was undertaking as I was interested in how other nations, particularly Britain and the United States, influenced UN Congo policy and how the organisation impacted their relationship and position on the world stage. The archives of the UN provided a wealth of evidence with which to develop this multi-dimensional view of the institution not merely as an actor in its own right on the ground in the Congo with ONUC, but as a public space and a multi-dimensional forum for other nations to interact. From the records of the ONUC through Chef du Cabinet files, General Assembly Records, Committee files to Papers of the Secretaries-General, the UN facility provided a multi-faceted view of events. Where UN accounts differ from sources of national archives is in their broad consideration of the context where political motives are at times less overt and at others produce a charged atmosphere between the actors, whether national representatives or UN officials.
The real value of this archive lies not just in the vast array of topics recorded – everything from peacekeeping, food security, economic development and environmental issues – but in the vision these sources provide of the institution and how it functions. Not only do you get a keen sense of the relationship between UN officials at different levels, but it is also possible to trace their interaction with various national representatives and follow the debates out of the chambers and into the corridors of the UN where the real bargaining takes place. After a morning spent reading about this, you can then head over to the main UN building at the bottom of the street and watch UN officials in the Delegates Lounge negotiate for real over lunch.