Locating the Archives: The United Nations and El Salvador’s Collective Memory in Midtown Manhattan

Image: “Classified”
Claudia Guevara Fiallos (2022).
Reproduced with permission of the artist.

by Valeria Vázquez Guevara

As I approached the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan, the iconic building of the United Nations Headquarters in New York (UNHQ) emerged on the horizon. It was the closest I could be to the archives of El Salvador’s UN Truth Commission. The UN has kept the archives under a permanent access ban for 30 years, which had come as a surprise to me in the early days of my research on truth commissions. As far as I knew, the Truth Commission’s 1993 Final Report guaranteed that the archives would be returned “to their lawful owners” – the Salvadoran people.

El Salvador’s Truth Commission was the first of its kind, created, operated, and funded by the UN. The UN established this Truth Commission on the promise that only the ‘official truth’ about the 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador would help to prevent a repetition of the conflict. After the signing of the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Agreements between the Salvadoran state and the guerrillas, El Salvador began to reform its public institutions and establish new, more inclusive ones. This was done in an effort to address the historical causes and legacies of the 12-year civil war. It was in that post-conflict context, after the Truth Commission delivered its Final Report in 1993 in New York, that the UN decided to keep the archives in a location abroad, to prevent their possible destruction in El Salvador. As the Final Report’s Introduction explains, there was a specific plan to safeguard the archives and make them widely accessible by establishing the Foundation for the Truth in the United States. 30 Years have passed. The archives remain not only in New York under the UN’s authority, but also inaccessible.

I was aware of this as I approached the building in February 2020. And yet, overlooking the UN building on that late-winter morning, I felt deeply unsettled. Somewhere deep within this towering building were the archives, kept permanently by the UN in New York; kept far away from the place and people for which the Truth Commission’s truth was meant to be about, and more importantly, ‘for’. The injustice could hardly have felt more concrete.

The injustice could hardly have felt more concrete.

The preposition ‘for’ kept coming to my mind as I stood there, looking at the UN building. The official name of the Truth Commission was ‘The United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador’. If, as the name suggests, the Truth Commission’s resulting account of the truth was ‘for’ the Salvadoran people, then why were the archives still being held outside of El Salvador in New York, inaccessible to Salvadorans, especially to victims’ associations? I knew the answer, but here it was, in its most visible, material form.

The iconic UN headquarters was explicitly designed as an internationally collaborative project, which brought together prominent architects from around the world. The aim was to ensure that the home of this new international organization would be truly ‘international’. The building, aptly following an architectural style known as ‘International Style’, was designed after WWII “to symbolize the bright, peaceful future ahead that does not linger in the past”. While many around the world might still associate an image of the UNHQ building with ongoing efforts to realize world peace and security, I saw something else: authority on truth telling, for world-making.

Through my research, the UN building had come to represent a particular way of practicing international authority, and more precisely, a particular way of authorizing the truth for countries after conflict. The location of the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s archives in New York represented the power of the UN to authorize how post-conflict states, especially in the Global South, memorialize their histories of violent conflict.

In the case of El Salvador, this can be seen in what was left out from the Truth Commission’s account of the truth. In a 1995 interview, Ana Guadalupe Martínez, lead negotiator for the Salvadoran guerrilla, said that the UN Truth Commission was never willing to incorporate as part of the truth the role of wealthy Salvadoran families in funding the state’s death squads. Two decades later, in 2018, in the wake of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Truth Commission’s Final Report, Douglass Cassel (a legal advisor of the Truth Commission) put it simply in an interview to a Salvadoran newspaper: “we couldn’t tell all the truth that we knew”. An important part of this ‘untold but known truth’ was the funding of the state’s death squads. Cassel explained that the Truth Commission did not have enough evidence to confirm the key participation of those wealthy families. In contrast, already back in 1995, Ana Guadalupe Martínez had argued that the exclusion of the funding of the death squads from the Final Report’s truth was due to the commissioners’ “unwilling[nes] to investigate”, rather than due to the absence of evidence.

As I was uncovering through my research, this was just one instance of how the UN asserts, practices, and gives material form to its international authority; and of how, in doing so, the UN shapes the world according to its own institutional values and interests.

Standing outside the UNHQ in New York, knowing that this was probably the closest that I, a Salvadoran-born woman, would ever be to the archives, was revealing. It brought me face to face with the visible, material form of the UN’s power and authority to determine what truths belong to Salvadorans, and importantly, the quality of that belonging. The UN’s ongoing refusal to grant access to the archives, or at least to facilitate the creation of copies of crucial documentation, has had consequences. It has created enormous difficulties in opening judicial investigations of those who were directly involved in the atrocities committed against communities during the civil war, such as the killing of the Jesuit Priests (1989), or the massacres in Las Aradas (1980) and El Mozote (1981).

As I walked away from the UNHQ building, I realized that its architectural design achieved its purpose. It gave concrete form to the UN’s understanding of internationalism. Knowing that the Salvadoran archives were somewhere within the UNHQ, the building made visible just how the UN asserts and practices its international authority over post-conflict states; over the way in which Salvadorans received its ‘truth’ as justice.

Valeria Vázquez Guevara is an incoming Global Academic Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law (2023-2025). She also serves as co-managing editor of the Australian Feminist Law Journal (Routledge), and as co-chair of the History and Theory of International Law Interest Group of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law.

This piece is part of the legal sightseeing
mini-blog series on institutional architecture:
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