Cultural identity as a human right: mandates and policy limitations in archival "participatory" approaches

By Livia Iacovino

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27 August, 2015. Monash University

Archival research agenda in Australia successfully harnessed the human rights momentum of 2008-12 (manifested in the National human rights consultation 2009 and Australia’s National Human Rights Action Plan 2012) in promoting human rights in records, in particular in relation to Indigenous rights in records. Human rights principles were incorporated into new concepts of provenance in which record subjects where acknowledged as record co-creators with concomitant rights and assimilated into emerging participatory archiving models. A less developed area of human rights relevant to the participatory approach to archives is the area of cultural rights, in particular, cultural identity important for Indigenous and minority rights in records. While human rights have centred on the individual, cultural rights are collective rights that place the individual within a group they have chosen to identify with. There has been an incremental evolution in cultural rights which empower communities but these rights are often perceived as a threat to national sovereignty.

While the current climate in Australia is not conducive to further developments in human rights, Victoria has retained its human rights charter and an extensive international framework remains. Cultural human rights instruments found in international and domestic Australian laws establish warrants for a participatory archive within the Australian context, premised on the recognition of the rights of those who are subjects of the record to participate as co-managers in decisionmaking about appraisal, access and control, thus shaping the archive over time from their perspective. A participatory archive can have a prospective value in that it captures the identity of those taking part in its formation. While the focus has been specifically on the Australian context, the same approach can be adapted to other jurisdictions as many countries are signatories to the same human rights conventions as Australia. Adopting the principle of rights maximisation, a participatory approach lessens the impact of the right to be forgotten on cultural rights, although it can be argued that an individual’s choice to be forgotten is part of a participatory process. Social media – the ‘participative web’ – are tools that may be used by a participatory approach to the management of records but the participatory archive is a concept that exists independently of social media technologies. From a government and organisational perspective, maintaining control over records generated from the participative web remains a major goal and limits the implementation of a participative archive as a prospective tool for cultural rights.

Given the unlikelihood that the participative web in the government or private context will give contributors control over their contributions, the major thrust of archival organisations has been in relation to projects that allow record participants to reshape records already in archival custody via annotations. While it is true that these approaches have not substantially changed accepted archival practices, there are continuing legal and social impediments as to why participatory approaches are stymied. Despite the current political climate, Australian archival policy makers, and Victoria specifically, have a clear mandate to give priority to the preservation of records of distinctive cultures, in particular those of Indigenous peoples and minorities. Research into improvements to online access to monolithic archival systems that can cut across jurisdictions is being undertaken but policy impediments remain, in the main from sovereign rights which require a global participatory governance approach. The challenge for archivists here and elsewhere is to continue to use human rights instruments to drive participatory approaches to archival systems, and to negotiate maximisation of rights over records for minority groups


Livia Iacovino is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow with the Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, Australia where she has taught the legal and ethical curricula in the recordkeeping courses. Her research projects and publications are focused on interdisciplinary perspectives of archival science, law and ethics, in particular online rights and responsibilities of ownership, access and privacy in government, health and community contexts. Livia's awards include the Monash University 2003 Mollie Holman Medal of Excellence for her PhD thesis