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Provenance in Place (Part II): Third World Decolonization & the Vienna Convention

17 Jan 2023 12:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By J.J. Ghaddar (1)

This post (Part II of II) is based on presentations I delivered over the last year virtually, in Rome and in Accra. See Part I for more details.

For over a decade, I have been tracing the roots of archival studies in western imperialism and white supremacy, with a focus on settler colonial and apartheid state formations. I share with you this journey by telling you about my excavations of three histories: that of the modern archival profession; of archiving in settler Canada; and of the Vienna Convention on Property, Archives and Debt (1983). In the process, I outline the importance of thinking about place in relation to the provenance of archives and records in colonial contexts, as part of amplifying the struggles of indigenous peoples to reclaim colonized lands and histories, and to overcome the archival legacies of colonialism.

From Archival Fictions to Repatriation: Third World Decolonization & the Vienna Convention (2)

After tracing the archival fictions we tell ourselves about the history of the modern archival profession in Europe and Canada (see Part I), I shifted my interrogations to the history of the global debate over archival repatriation and displaced archives during the era of Third World decolonization in the 20th century, when newly independent states and anticolonial movements spent decades working to repatriate and protect archives and other material heritage from the First World. These efforts were part of an all-sided offensive to end western imperialism and decolonize the global order, including through diplomatic initiatives like the Vienna Convention. Third World actors from the eminent Algerian jurist and diplomat, Dr. Mohamed Bedjaoui, to formations like the Non-Aligned Movement were at the centre of crafting the Convention in international sites that included the UN, the International Law Commission, UNESCO and the International Council on Archives (ICA). Liberation movements from Algeria to Namibia were also involved. All of them consistently articulated a fundamental connection between archival decolonization, cultural and heritage preservation, communication and information equity, economic sovereignty, and anti-imperialism. It is impossible then to disconnect the Convention from Third World instruments on cultural heritage or from political proposals at the UN like the New International Economic Order and the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). While the latter calls for equity in the global flows of information, the former calls for people-centred development. Hence, the Convention brings togethers archives as well as property and debt into a single framework and instrument. It calls for the repatriation of both property and archives from the colonizing state to the newly decolonized state, as well as for the cancellation of the debts of newly decolonized states from the colonial era.

Image 2: UNESCO headquarters in Paris where I conducted archival research on the Vienna Convention in the summer of 2018. Source: UNESCO/Wikipedia (April 2010).

These efforts and initiatives unfolded at a time when bloody struggles for decolonization and liberation were taking place globally, when the martyrs and prisoners of the Third World Project were counted in the millions, and when liberation movements that were not state actors had special status within the UN system. It was also a time when the Third World Bloc enshrined in international law the right of all peoples to live free from foreign interference and to resist colonialism. The Bloc also lobbied for status and recognition within the UN for national liberation movements that were not state actors, including the African National Congress and South West Africa People’s Organisation (Namibia) then struggling against apartheid South Africa’s bid for regional domination, as well as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Significantly, national liberation movements recognized by the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity had status at the 1983 conference where the Convention was adopted, as did the UN Council for Namibia. The accordance of special status to Third World liberation movements is one example amongst many of the tension between the aspirations and visions of decolonization within the Third World Project, and the reality of the western nation state model and global system of nation states that those aspirations and visions would be increasingly constrained by and neutralized through. Ultimately defeated by the neoliberal counterassault, the Third World Project failed to end imperialism, constrain Global South elites, ward off the power of finance capital, or realize the full promise of the national liberation movements and their call for unity. It succeeded, however, in ending direct colonial rule in many countries and territories. It also succeeded in what Angela Davis refers to, when speaking of the civil rights era in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as “chang[ing] the terrain of struggle [… and …] reconfiguring the landscape on which we now try to increase the measure of freedom all communities enjoy.” (3) It succeeded in galvanizing hundreds of millions of people over decades across all the continents of the world to work to different degrees in varied arenas with diverse visions to realize an end to colonial rule and imperial domination. Such visions, as Sajed aptly put its, “function as latent ideals of the unfulfilled potential of Third Worldism, which are still worth keeping in mind and striving towards.” (4)

Image 3: Picture of Mr. Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal, Director-General of UNESCO from 1974 to 1987. He was the first Black African to head a United Nations agency and remains to this day the only Director-General of UNESCO not representing a Global North state. M’Bow is an important figure of the Third World Bloc at the UN, which supported his election to UNESCO. Source UNESCO/Wikipedia (Nov. 1974).

The Vienna Convention is itself a latent ideal and unfulfilled promise, a legal instrument that has yet to come into force but one that provides what is likely the most radical vision of global archival repatriation ever debated on such a grand scale. It is a vision that is still worth keeping in mind as we continue discussing displaced archives today in the wake of Third World political decolonization. Let us consider the text of the Vienna Convention in more detail to illustrate this point further:

  • The Convention begins in the preamble with the statement: “Considering the profound transformation of the international community brought about by the decolonization process,” and firmly situates the question of archives in relation to decolonization and self-determination.
  • Throughout, the Convention also makes distinctions between newly independent states and other instances of state succession, which reflects Third Worldism’s insistence that there are unique needs when western colonialism and occupation have been a factor.
  • Article 21 states that “The passing of State archives of the predecessor State entails the extinction of the rights of that State and the arising of the rights of the successor State to the State archives which pass to the successor State, subject to the provisions of the articles in the present Part.” (5) This transfer of archives to the successor state is to take place without compensation, as per Articles 22 and 23.
  • For decolonized states specifically, Article 28.1 stipulates that all archives by or about a territory be transferred to the new state from the preceding state’s national repository, including archives that had once belonged to the territory that were incorporated into the colonial archives and those created within the colonial archives about the territory. Article 28.4 also calls on the former colonizer to assist with the in-gathering of archives that are not in its national repository but were dispersed in the colonial era. Furthermore, the Convention insists in Article 28.7 that with formerly colonized states, agreements on archives “between the predecessor State and the newly independent State […] shall not infringe the right of the peoples of those States to development, to information about their history, and to their cultural heritage.”

Overall, Article 28, which is focused on newly decolonized states, is undergirded by the principle of territoriality, that is of territorial pertinence, provenance or origins. It is also undergirded by the principles of retroactive sovereignty and of functional pertinence. Territorial pertinence is defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) as “[t]he practice of placing documents with content relevant to a region in a repository within the region. […] For example, under territorial pertinence, records relating to a newly formed country would be transferred to the new country.” This principle is related to that of retroactive sovereignty, which “means that the archives produced by administrations and institutions in charge of managing the business of the territory that has become a newly independent state are devolved to the new state.” (6) The Society of American Archivists also distinguishes territorial pertinence from that of territorial provenance, whereby “the records would remain with the agency that created them.” In line with territorial pertinence, the Convention calls for records that belonged to the formerly colonized territory to be returned there if they had been incorporated into the colonial state’s archives. This is related to the principle of territorial origin, “according to which the archives produced by the territory before it became dependent, and then incorporated in the archives of the annexing or supervising state, are bound to the successor state.” (7) The Convention also states that whatever records the colonizer had created originally in its national archives should be transferred to the newly independent state when they are vital to its ability to operate. As Kecskeméti explains, “[t]he functional pertinence principle […] means that the transfer of power and responsibilities must be accompanied by the transfer of archives that are necessary for administrative continuity to be ensured.” (8) 

At the same time, the Convention does not foreclose the possibility of acknowledging and incorporating into agreements the claims and perspectives of others depicted in the records. For example, Article 28.7 outlines that agreements on archives between the former colonizing state and the newly decolonized state “shall not infringe the right of the peoples of those States to development, to information about their history, and to their cultural heritage.” I read this provision as making room for the needs of people living outside of the decolonized state (e.g. Algeria, Ghana, Benin, Trinidad & Tobago) within the boundaries of the state that colonized it (e.g. France, Britain, Spain). They can serve as the basis for negotiating resolutions that incorporate the needs and perspectives of people residing in the latter, while still facilitating repatriation. When colonialism is involved, joint or shared heritage, or reproduction, are solutions that should be framed in a way that addresses the core of the problem, namely how archival colonial legacies help perpetuate the power imbalance between North and South. A decolonized reframing of joint/shared heritage also has the potential to help work out solutions in cases where there are multiple claims over records, including when there are competing claims by Global South communities, movements and societies.     

While I cannot give these principles the extensive treatment they deserve today, I will point out that the Convention centres land and place insofar as archives by or about a colonized territory belong to that territory even when not created in it, even when not in the custody of its governing authority, and even when located elsewhere. It calls for “repatriating the power of the knowledge held in archives” (9) by reconstituting memory, history and collectivity through an in-gathering of records pertaining to a place, as part of de-fragmenting the knowledge, people and sovereignties which were dispersed through many repositories, archives, custodians and states by colonial violence. I term this framework provenance in place, insofar as archives are to be kept together based on the place they pertain to and in that place, rather than solely arranged by creator. The Convention’s call (particularly in Article 28) for global archival decolonization seeks to operationalize the principle of self-determination in archives by connecting archival ownership and custody to the issue of whose land has been or is colonized by whom. These are powerful ideas even if the Vienna Convention never received the requisite 15 state signatories to come into force largely due to the political opposition and machinations of western states and archivists. Due to the global dynamics of power between North and South, the Convention and the Third World voices behind it have been given too little consideration, if not misrepresented and erased, in archival studies. The Convention’s history has generally been written by the white men who opposed it. Nonetheless, the Association of Commonwealth Archivists & Records Managers took a firm position about the return of displaced archives from Britain to Third World decolonized states in part by referencing the Convention, noting that the Convention “has continued to inform thinking about archives within the international archival community.”

A committee of western archival experts called together by the ICA in 1995 criticized the Convention for adopting territorial pertinence because it violates the dominant creator-centric conception of provenance: “The ownership of archives cannot be determined by or on the basis of the information contained in them, but only by their provenance.” (10) This statement evidences the tendency to conflate or collapse ownership and provenance, which is why reconceptualizing provenance is often at the core of arguments for archival repatriation. More recently, Kecskeméti, who opposed the Convention for political reasons, considers the principles of territorial origin, retroactive sovereignty and functional pertinence to be “based on provenance.” (11) Indeed, much has changed between the ICA’s 1995 criticism of the Convention for being in violation of provenance and 2017, when Kecskeméti wrote about the principles undergirding the Convention based on a more expansive understanding of provenance. Since the turn of the last century, a range of archival scholars from Bastian and Nesmith to Hurley and Drake have been thinking more expansively of provenance, about how to locate the pluralistic histories and dynamic relationships of records, or whether to discard the notion altogether, as captured in concepts like societal provenance, parallel provenance and community of records. Nonetheless, the fundamental theoretical validity of the western theory of provenance continues to be accepted almost universally. This more expansive yet still creator-centric understanding of provenance is reflected in major descriptive standards like the ICA’s ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description and the Canadian Rules for Archival Description.

Building on that more expansive thinking about provenance, however, my research into the Vienna Convention invites us to consider the possibility of reconceptualizing provenance partly by centring place as context and origin even when that means de-coupling provenance from respect des fonds. Of course, place is not the only important aspect of the provenance of archives, but it is one that is too often disregarded, minimized or elided altogether. This tendency to elide place is a common colonial move, one that frames place as simply backdrop, or abstractly as timeless and decontextualized space, to divert attention away from the question of who is occupying and controlling whose land. This tendency has led indigenous and anticolonial thinkers around the world to highlight the importance of centring place in challenging and dislodging colonial and imperial projects, all of which require the remaking of political geography. The Vienna Convention reflects this anticolonial ethos albeit within a restrictive statist framework. The extensive archival and documentary trail of the debates and activities associated with its crafting can enrich our thinking about displaced archives and our dominant archival paradigm beyond the horizon of the west and its legal traditions. Given its statist focus, however, it is important to consider how we can bring contemporary theories, frameworks and practices about community archiving, diasporic archives and Indigenous Data Sovereignty to bear on these discussions and our interpretations of the Convention. 

Future Directions: Rethinking Provenance in Archivy

This text has traversed vast historical periods, and physical and conceptual terrain, from the archival fictions produced about archives and archivists to forge white nationalist states like France and Canada, to the insurgent histories of the Third World Project and the decolonizing ethos of the Vienna Convention. My singular goal has been to unearth hidden histories and produce critical knowledge that can aid in the project of creating a more liberatory archival landscape and world. My anticolonial rethinking of place and archives, which I gloss under the term provenance in place, asks us to attend to the relationship between records, their place and the people of that place. This intellectual intervention serves as a strategic move whereby an understanding of provenance that takes place as seriously as creator, if not more, supports claims that archives removed from a place by colonizers through colonial violences should be returned to that place (as origin and context). Provenance in place is about creating archival regimes and infrastructures that begin by asking, what land(s) do the archives pertain to? What people and nations are connected to that land historically and today? And among them who, if any, has been or is dispossessed or colonized, and by whom? Most importantly, it is to ask, how can the archives support efforts to end that dispossession and colonization today, and to undo the archival legacies of such colonization in the past?

(1) This text is based on research outlined in the following publications: J.J. Ghaddar (2022) “Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention for Global Decolonization and Archival Repatriation,” in James Lowry, ed., Disputed Archival Heritage, Volume II (New York: Routledge); Ghaddar (2021) Provenance in Place: Archives, Settler Colonialism and the Making of a Global Order. Thesis (University of Toronto); and Ghaddar (2020) Total Archives for Land, Law and Sovereignty in Settler Canada. Archival Science 21(1): 59-82.  

(2) This section is based on Ghaddar, "Provenance in Place: Crafting the Vienna Convention."

(3) Angela Davis (2008) Angela Davis: How Does Change Happen? University of California Television, around 39 to 44 minutes.

(4) Alina Sajed (2019) Re-remembering Third Worldism: An Affirmative Critique of National Liberation in Algeria. Middle East Critique 28(3): 243–60, 16.

(5) Article 25 provides the caveat that, “Nothing in the present Part shall be considered as prejudging in any respect any question that might arise by reason of the preservation of the integral character of groups of State archives of the predecessor State.”

(6) Charles Kecskeméti (2017) “Archives Seizures: The Evolution of International Law,” in James Lowry, ed., Displaced Archives (London, New York: Routledge), 14. Emphasis in original.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Evelyn Wareham (2001) “Our Own Identity, Our Own Taonga, Our Own Self Coming Back": Indigenous Voices in New Zealand Record-Keeping. Archivaria 52: 26-46, 46.

(10) ICA, Committee on Legal Matters (1995) Reference Dossier on Archival Claims. Compiled by Hervé Bastien, Committee Member, for the Council of Europe, 53.

(11) Kecskeméti, “Archives Seizures”, 14.

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