Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sinan Antoon on the IMF/Hoover Ba'ath Party Documents

Sinan Antoon has a piece on Jadaliyya this morning called "Plundering the Past: Scholarly Treasures" (thanks to Aseel Dyck on Iraq Crisis List). Antoon devotes a fair bit of time to the issue of the Ba'ath records obtained by the Iraq Memory Foundation that are at the Hoover Institution:
It is not only precious artifacts and relics from Iraq’s ancient history that were smuggled to the United States. The United States pillaged millions of documents belonging to the Iraqi state. Another important collection of official records was seized by an Iraqi-American. The itinerary of this archive and the rhetoric legitimizing its “acquisition” is quite telling. In April 2003, Kanan Makiya, one of the cheerleaders of the war (during its first few weeks he wrote that the bombing was music to his ears) made his way to the basement under the Ba'ath Party’s headquarters in Baghdad. Makiya removed the records he found there to his family home in what became later the Green Zone. The house supposedly became the Baghdad office of the Iraq Memory Foundation, a Washington, DC-based institution he established. The entire staff of the Iraq Memory Foundation is comprised of five persons, two of whom are not Iraqi. It has no advisory board of any sort, nor does it have any links to any Iraqi historians. It has no presence on the ground in Iraq outside the Green Zone. In 2005, the foundation reached an agreement with the US army to ship the documents to the United States.
Considering the rampant corruption of both the US occupation and the Iraqi puppet regime it installed in Iraq none of this is surprising. Nevertheless, it does not change the fact that these documents are not anyone’s private property. They belong to the Iraqi people and their seizure and transfer to the United States. was a violation of international law. Despite calls from Saad Eskander, the Director General of Iraq’s National Library and Archive, to return these documents to Iraq, the Iraq Memory Foundation decided otherwise. In January of 2008, the foundation signed an agreement with the Hoover Institution to transfer the documents there. Opposition did not only come from inside Iraq. In April of 2008, the Society of American Archivist (SAA) and the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), the world’s largest organization of archivists with 5100 members, expressed its “deep concern about [these] records and others obtained by the United States. . . in actions [that] may be considered an act of pillage, which is specifically forbidden by the 1907 Hague Convention.” The letter stressed that these records must be returned to Iraq “to be maintained as part of the official records in the National Library and Archives.”
These plundered documents are a treasure for scholars. They illuminate the inner dynamics of the Ba'ath regime and trace its growth and detail its various visceral effects on Iraqi society. But, alas, neither Iraqi scholars, nor Iraqi citizens, the victims of the Ba'ath regime, have access to these important documents from their visceral past. One of the “happy” stories about the benefits of this plunder to “our knowledge” speaks about the intensity with which some scholars are working on these “recovered” documents. “Recovered” is the key word here. The plunder is conveniently erased. But not for Iraqis. They have to live with the loss and fight to retrieve their plundered memory. And not a year has passed without plunder in Iraq.
As for the concerned scholars who mine this archive to “understand” the barbarism of the Ba'ath regime, I wonder if they will find time to contemplate the "barbarism [that] taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another," to borrow Benjamin's words.