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Tom Buchanan, University of Oxford, December 2011

I came to research the history of Amnesty in the mid-1990s as a result of my interest in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. In particular, I was trying to disentangle Amnesty International from the various left-wing organisations of the late 1950s and early 1960s that were promoting an amnesty for political prisoners jailed under the dictatorships in Spain, Greece and Portugal. At this point most papers relating to Amnesty’s history were still kept at the organisation’s headquarters in London, although they have since been moved to the IISG in Amsterdam. I was pleased to be given access to a collection of material assembled by Professor Andrew Blane and Priscilla Ellsworth in the early 1980s to mark Amnesty’s twentieth anniversary. They had carried out a series of fascinating interviews with the founders of Amnesty such as Peter Benenson and Tom Sargent, as well as with grassroots activists.

The collection consisted of interview transcripts (carefully typed, bound and signed by participants) along with an assortment of documents donated as part of the project. These included not only letters and formal minutes, but even a paper napkin on which a record of an early planning meeting were recorded. The collection was housed at this point in Amnesty’s “archive”, which is a vital tool of their work in assisting political prisoners rather than a source for historians. I was immensely grateful to be allowed some desk space in a busy office. One item that I came across aroused considerable interest. It was a letter sent from Nelson Mandela in November 1962, thanking Amnesty for sending the barrister Louis Blom Cooper to attend his trial: “The fact that he sat next to us furnished yet another proof that honest and upright men and democratic organisations throughout the civilised world are on our side in the struggle for a democratic South Africa”. NGOs are notoriously ephemeral, and much of Amnesty’s past may easily have been lost without Blane and Ellsworth’s timely initiative. The decision to make this material available for scholars from the later-1990s onwards, at a time when the organisation could begin to be viewed in its true historical context, and when other sources (such as the relevant British government documents) were also becoming accessible, means that historians now have an excellent basis for researching the history of Amnesty International.



ICRC Archives
Dr. Fabian Klose, Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz, December 2013

The Archives of the International Committee of Red Cross (AICRC), located at the ICRC Headquarters in Geneva, are an indispensable resource for researcher working in the field of humanitarianism and human rights. They comprise textual records, photographs, films, and audio sources related to the work of the ICRC in conflicts around the world dating from the organization's foundation to the present. Because of the rather small reading room and in order to make sure that the relevant material is available, researchers are asked to make appointments in advance (opening hours from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday). The archivists know the ICRC records very well and have a sympathetic ear, which means that they are enormously helpful for finding relevant material. Additionally they create a collegial atmosphere in which academic work can indeed prosper. Being allowed to use digital cameras in the reading room enables you to collect a significant amount of material in a reasonably short time. For more information visit the website: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/icrc-archives/

I first used the ICRC Archives while researching my book, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence. Selecting the wars of decolonization in Kenya (1952-1956) and Algeria (1954-62) as my case studies, I examined the role of international humanitarian law and the ICRC at the end of empire. The "wars of national liberation" in the 1950s and 1960s posed great challenges to the newly created human rights regime. The Geneva Conventions of 1949, for instance, were increasingly bounced back and forth in the tough political confrontations of decolonization, so that the original issue of securing minimum humanitarian protections in wartime threatened to pale or even perish in the skirmishes.

With regard to the international discourse on human rights, the archival material from the ICRC was indispensable. This international organization provided a particularly valuable outside perspective in its files on the two decolonization wars. In addition to the UN archives in New York and in Geneva that I also consulted, the ICRC Archives proved to be especially important for my research. The inventories contained great evidence on the human rights violations occurring during the conflicts in Kenya and Algeria. These inventories were only released in April 2004 and I was the first person to view them for my book. The numerous documents and particularly the reports by various ICRC missions during the two wars facilitated a telling reconstruction of how far human rights were systematically violated from the perspective of the organization that played a key role in international humanitarian law and tried to secure the minimum standards of international humanitarian norms. However, the documents also enabled me to construct a critical view of the partly ambiguous ICRC position towards the colonial powers, especially the British colonial government during the war in Kenya.

My positive impression of the ICRC Archives concerning the available material as well as the competent and friendly staff was once again confirmed while staying in Geneva for my recent project on the history of humanitarian intervention in the long 19th century. I can only recommend the ICRC Archives as an important resource for historians working in the field of humanitarianism and human rights.


Rockefeller Archive Center
William H. Schneider, Indiana University, December 2011

I first visited the Rockefeller Archive Center over twenty years ago while researching a book on the history of eugenics in France. One of the first and most extensive Rockefeller Foundation projects to combat disease was an anti-tuberculosis program in France that began during the First World War. Even more immediately impressive than the collection is the setting of the archives in an old Rockefeller mansion on a hill overlooking Tarrytown and the Hudson River valley. The Rockefeller family presence is everywhere. One enters a grand foyer with winding staircase, and the researchers’ working room is an old bedroom of the estate.

After overcoming the initial impact of the ambience, researchers are then struck not only by the extent of the collections but the very detailed organization of the records. This is especially the case of the Rockefeller Foundation archives and is not the result so much of the current archival management as the system devised by the Foundation to record and share information between foundation officers, staff, and board members. For example, officers kept diaries in multiple carbon copies, so that their reports of meetings and observations of visits to sites could be circulated to others. Likewise, country and project files include copies of relevant diaries, reports, and memoranda originally written in multiple copies.

In the end, the collections themselves are the most important feature of the Rockefeller archives. Given the global scope and resources of the Foundation, especially between the World Wars, the information, especially about other countries, makes these records the rival and often a superior source of information not available in the other countries where the Foundation worked. This fact is most obviously reflected by the polyglot, international nature of researchers working at the center on any given day. The Chinese, Italian, German, and Peruvian researchers usually outnumber those from the U.S.