Archives, as repositories of collective memory, hold immense power. They are the guardians of narratives that shape our collective understanding of history, society, and identity. Whether physical or digital, archives reflect what societies choose to remember or forget. Far from being neutral, archives reflect the biases, ideologies, and power structures of their creators. We know that gaps, absences, and deliberate omissions exist within all archival collections. These are silent spaces that echo with the voices of the marginalised, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

Human rights archives are essential repositories of narratives about abuse and human struggles for justice. By their very nature, they grapple with the darkest and most contentious aspects of our shared existence. They document atrocities, violence, and systemic abuses and the fraught debates about these questions. These archives bear witness to genocide, torture, forced disappearances, and the erosion of basic human dignity. Even though they may strive to centre the voices of the oppressed and marginalised, human rights archives also manifest the omissions and silences in all archives.

Beneath their veneer of inclusivity lie salient omissions and silences that undermine their inclusivity, representativeness, and integrity. These omissions and silences manifest in various forms, from the privileging of the narratives of prominent activists and organisations to the relegation of the voices of marginalised communities. Women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ individuals, among others, are frequently underrepresented or absent from the archival record, perpetuating their historical invisibility and erasure. The creators and users of human rights archives must strive to account for these silences and omissions.

The Amnesty International Archives document the rise of the global human rights movement during the second half of the twentieth century through the organisation’s records. The materials within this collection offer a treasure trove of primary source information for human rights scholars on the history of key political events, global social change, abuses and violations, and advocacy campaigns. Human Rights NGO Archives such as the Amnesty International Archives offer a unique digital record of human rights struggles. Unlike state archives, which tend to privilege the perspectives of political leaders and other influential actors, NGO archives often include the perspectives of grassroots human rights activists. They complement the top-down perspective of state archives with a bottom-up view.

The Amnesty International archives document the workings of the organisation through its internal records, such as the International Council Meetings records. They detail the activities of the pioneering human rights NGO and how they shaped the international human rights movement. These documents provide insights into specific cases of human rights abuse, global debates over human rights norms, and advocacy strategies. The documents also shed light on the treatment of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, torture, and mistreatment across countries. The Testimonies and Personal Accounts give voice to individuals or groups experiencing human rights violations. Human rights scholars interested in NGO advocacy movements and campaigns will find the Amnesty International Poster Collection particularly useful.

Notwithstanding its rich repository of primary sources, the archivists of the Amnesty International Archives acknowledge that “Archival collections are, by their nature, curated and can therefore present a biased or particular perspective.” Indeed, biases are evident in the Amnesty International Archives, as in all human rights archives. Consider, for example, the well-documented bias of Amnesty International for civil and political rights advocacy at the expense of economic and social rights advocacy. From its founding in 1961 up to the 1990s, Amnesty International, like many other human rights NGOs, approached human rights abuses almost exclusively in terms of civil rights violations.

International human rights norms span a broad spectrum of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and solidarity rights conveyed in the several international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. However, international human rights NGOs like Amnesty International have long privileged civil and political rights focusing on state repression of individual physical abuses – killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, mistreatment, and physical harassment.

The disproportionate focus on these forms of abuse obscured critical economic and social rights violations that manifest in social inequalities, poverty, and the denial of access to education, shelter and healthcare. International NGO activism has also tended to focus on domestic state obligations rather than extra-territorial and international obligations to protect human rights.

Cold War Legacy Biases
The biases of international Human Rights NGO advocacy are partly a legacy of Cold War-era international politics. One of the impacts of the Cold War on human rights was the intensification of the arbitrary boundaries between civil/political rights and economic/social rights, as well as between domestic civil rights infractions and foreign human rights violations. These boundaries reflected the East versus West polarisation in international relations, which reduced human rights to a weapon of propaganda and political ideology in a bipolar struggle.

While Western bloc countries emphasised civil and political rights, Eastern Bloc communist countries deflected criticism of their human rights record by focussing on economic and social rights. International Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Article 19 emerged in this Cold War context. This polarisation negated the cardinal principle that all human rights are indivisible and interdependent. One set of rights cannot be enjoyed fully without the other.

Cold War era human rights advocacy biases are evident in the contrasting interpretations of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, a landmarked agreement between several Western and Eastern Bloc states. The Accord, which included a commitment to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, motivated Western-based NGOs to advocate for the civil and political rights of Eastern bloc dissidents and “human rights defenders.” The NGO Human Rights Watch started as “Helsinki Watch” and played a prominent role in advocating for the civil rights of dissidents in the Soviet Union and other parts of communist Eastern Europe. Amnesty International also played a vital role in the international advocacy for civil and political rights during this period, with the adoption of the UN Convention against Torture in 1984 and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998.

Therefore, Cold War politics shaped how human rights were understood and discussed in different countries, creating epistemological fault lines, omissions, and silences still evident in most human rights archives. Caught in the middle of these ideological battles, the neutrality of Western-based International human rights INGOs was constantly challenged. The dominant criticism was that while Western-based human rights INGOs were quick to criticise civil and political rights violations in communist Eastern bloc nations and elsewhere, they tended to overlook equally condemnable economic, social and cultural rights violations of marginalised groups in Western countries, apparently for ideological reasons.

While Western NGOs focused on individual civil and political rights advocacy, collective solidarity rights struggles resonated deeply in many parts of the Global South, particularly in anti-colonial struggles for collective self-determination and demands by indigenous peoples for control over their natural resources. Economic, social, and cultural rights concerns were also dominant in grassroots civil society advocacy for the right to development, culminating in the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986.

These economic, social, and cultural solidarity rights debates are obscured and muted in archives of Western-based international Human Rights NGOs. Only with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and the ideological shifts that followed did international NGO activism turn towards economic and social rights issues.

The gaps and silences on economic, social, and cultural rights and indigenous solidarity rights are evident in the Amnesty International Archives. For example, the Urgent Actions Collections, which include appeals sent out to Amnesty International’s network to act against specific human rights violations, show a clear bias for civil and political rights. A key term search for “political rights” in the Urgent Actions collections yielded 23 results, and a search for “civil rights” yielded 16 results. However, a search for “social rights” yielded only one result, while a search for “economic rights” yielded no results.

These omissions and silences on the Global South and indigenous economic, social, and cultural rights struggles reflect broader gaps in the archives of international human rights NGOs. The grand narratives of international human rights debates and struggles are well captured in the Amnesty International Archives, included in collections such as the records of Amnesty’s International Council Meeting (ICM), the International Executive Committee (IEC) and the records of key personalities such as the Papers of Eric Baker who was one of the founders of the organisation. Less prominent in these records, however, are accounts of local grassroots activists in the periphery who struggled for human rights beyond the limelight of organised international NGO Activism and Campaigning.

Filling Gaps and Breaking Silences
Archives typically privilege the voices of the elite, the powerful, and the literate. The documentation of human rights violations in state archives is particularly susceptible to these biases. Governments, institutions, and influential individuals often suppress information that threatens their legitimacy or exposes their complicity in human rights violations. The silence is strategic – a calculated omission to protect reputations, sustain privileges, maintain control, or perpetuate injustice.

The silences and omissions of human rights NGO archives might be less malicious, but the results are the same. The omission of certain narratives perpetuates a distorted historical record that may obscure the true scope of violations and the voices of victims. Crucial evidence of state-sponsored violence and repression may be inadvertently omitted or hidden, perpetuating impunity and hindering efforts toward justice and restitution.

Admittedly, archivists who work hard to document human rights abuses face a unique ethical dilemma: how to ethically represent the horrors of gross human rights violations such as genocide, torture, sexual violence, and state-sponsored oppression that defy easy representation. Archivists must tread carefully to ensure that the records are curated in ways that neither sensationalise violence nor minimise the severity of abuse.

The silence that emerges is often not a lack of effort but a recognition of the inadequacy of the records and archival methods. Yet, in this silence, specific questions must be asked: Whose stories are deemed worthy of representation? Whose pain is acknowledged, and whose remains buried in the archival vaults? How does the curation of the records of violations reflect responsibility, victimhood, and agency?

One way of filling archival gaps and breaking silences is by promoting inclusive archival documentation. Inclusive documentation is crucial for all archives. For human rights archives, it is critical and imperative because the issues they document pertain to the protection of human life, dignity, and well-being. Archivists must actively seek out marginalised voices and go beyond dominant or familiar themes, issues, and personalities when organising documents. Users of human rights archives must also strive to critically examine the gaps in the archives by “listening for silences.” They must ask critical questions: Why are certain stories missing? Where else can we look to fill the gaps resulting from missing stories? By acknowledging these silences, we can begin to rectify them.

Breaking archival silences also requires ethical storytelling. Human rights archives often focus on victimhood, but what about resistance? The stories of activists, dissidents, and change-makers are equally vital. Yet, their narratives are sometimes overshadowed by the enormity of suffering. The silence around acts of courage, resilience, and defiance perpetuates a one-dimensional view of human rights struggles—one that ignores the agency of those who fought back. The remedy is to amplify the voices of survivors, activists, and those who resisted in the margins and peripheries. Their stories are not just records; they are calls to action. We must resist the tendency to cast the narratives of marginalised groups only as stories of victimhood but consider them also as stories of resilience, inventiveness, and agency.

Although they manifest omissions and silences, digital archives and online repositories such as the Amnesty International Archives also offer ways of breaking silences through accessibility and transparency. Many NGO archives now strive to enhance access to archival materials, particularly those documenting human rights abuses in marginalised communities. For example, the Amnesty International Oral History Collection includes important documents on the political situation in apartheid South Africa from the perspective of local activists. The collection consists of an oral history of the trial of Nelson Mandela.

The Amnesty International poster collection includes visual material produced by various Amnesty International sections spanning 19 different languages, including Haitian Creole, Swahili, Cebuano and Mongolian, and various visual and aesthetic styles. These posters provide a diversity of perspectives on local human rights campaigns. Similarly, the Testimonies and Personal Accounts collections highlight the experiences of dissidents and human rights defenders imprisoned under various repressive regimes – from the Estado Novo regime in Portugal to Chile under Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa.

Remembering as Justice
The historian Yosef Yerushalmi writes that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but justice. Omissions and silences within human rights archives represent more than mere gaps in the historical record; they constitute profound injustices that perpetuate impunity, marginalisation, and historical erasure. They contribute to marginalising and excluding already vulnerable communities from the historical record. By erasing the contributions and experiences of marginalised groups, archives perpetuate their historical invisibility and reinforce patterns of discrimination and oppression.

Human Rights scholars have an obligation to break archival silences and reinscribe marginalised voices into human rights histories. This is a necessary intervention to address epistemic violence. In the context of human rights, archival omissions and silences have profound implications for individuals and societies. When archives fail to document the experiences of marginalised communities properly, they perpetuate epistemic violence. Epistemic violence in the archives does not always manifest in the outright erasure of knowledge and memory. It also manifests in concealment, misportrayal or miscategorisation. For example, when stories of minorities, women, and indigenous peoples are relegated to footnotes or left out of human rights histories, their struggles, resilience, and contributions remain hidden, buried beneath layers of silence.

Human Rights archives are central to building inclusive human rights narratives that are crucial to fulfilling the universalist aspiration of human rights. Without a comprehensive understanding of history, societies risk repeating past injustices. Unless addressed, omissions and silences in the archival record will continue to obscure the root causes of social problems and hinder efforts to address them effectively. By acknowledging and addressing these omissions and silences, we can strive towards a more transparent and accountable representation of human rights history. Only by amplifying the voices of those historically silenced, uncovering hidden narratives, and confronting uncomfortable truths can human rights archives fulfil their transformative potential as instruments of justice, reconciliation, and social change.