The Past Is Not Quiet: Documenting the Truth

March 06, 2013


Trudy Huskamp Peterson“The past is not quiet. We need to honestly talk about what really happened because other people do remember,” says Trudy Huskamp Peterson, one of the world’s leading human rights archivists.  You read that right: archivist.

Peterson’s résumé packs an impressive punch, including positions as acting archivist of the United States in the 1990s and archivist for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She has also dedicated herself to work with truth commissions and human rights commissions around the globe, from South Africa to Guatemala to the former Soviet Union.

When Peterson received her AAUW fellowship in 1973, she was working toward her doctorate in history from the University of Iowa. She says the importance of the fellowship is simple:

It made all this possible. When I won the fellowship … [my husband and I] had spent all our savings putting ourselves through graduate and law school. … Without the money I don’t think I could have afforded the research trips, and without them and without the degree I could never have gotten where I am today.

According to Peterson, archiving the past is important on both individual and societal levels. People want to know how they got where they are today, and tracing a family’s immigration history is one way of doing that. Societies are very much the same; there is a collective need to know about a country’s history. This includes facing the hard truths of a society’s past, which Peterson laments does not happen often enough. In her view the United States has had no truth commissions or good internalized debate about the roles the government and military have played in many international conflicts. She believes one key to having those difficult conversations is to begin with credible data or documents. Memories may fade, but governmental memos, records, and documents remain.

Peterson’s international work has been influential in understanding societies’ needs during transitional periods. In the aftermath of repressive regimes (which shift to less repressive regimes and sometimes to democracies) Peterson has identified four kinds of demands typically made on the new government: (1) to hold the old regime accountable, (2) to make sure the bad people do not return to power, (3) to tell the truth about what really happened, (4) to make reparations. In all four demands, documents are incredibly useful. When it comes to government-sanctioned or orchestrated violations of human rights, societies cannot keep hiding from themselves, says Peterson.

Today Peterson has two major projects, with the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines and the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Sometimes governments accept their role in uncovering the past, as in the case of the Philippines. Other times a society must fight for the truth, as is happening in the Marshall Islands, which was a U.S. trust territory after World War II and the site of above-ground nuclear testing for a decade.

In all the work she does, Peterson recognizes the importance of understanding, discussing, and documenting the past, which is why she works tirelessly to uncover the truth. “We need to look honestly in the face of what has gone on. It isn’t easy to look at the tragedy of others, but there is a huge cost if we close our eyes.”

This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.

By:   |   March 06, 2013

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