Friday, July 6, 2012

Controversy between Algeria and France over Archives

Christian Lowe at Reuters has a fascinating piece (thanks rainbyte) called "Algeria, France tussle over archives 50 years after split" discussing an ongoing debate between France and Algeria over artifacts, books, maps, a bronze cannon, and archives removed to France between 1830 and 1962. It begins: "When French soldiers and administrators left Algeria after more than a century of colonial rule, they did not go empty-handed."

The debate has some of the classic characteristics of archival disputes:

The failure to provide for the disposition of archives in a treaty

Lowe states "When negotiators were hammering out the terms of Algeria's independence in the French spa resort of Evian 50 years ago, they did not include in their treaty any articles on archives or historical artifacts."

This has been followed by largely unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a solution.  Lowe cites Herve Lemoin, director of the French national archives, stating that "an agreement had been reached in 1966 to return Algeria's historical archives, notably Ottoman-era documents, and technical documents from the 1830-1962 period, but Algiers had since claimed more." On the other side, according to Lowe, Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director of Algeria's national archives, stated that "his counterparts in France had offered a compromise: Algeria would be given access to copies of the disputed items if it abandons its claim to them. He refused."

Contrasting views on legal ownership of the archives

"We're not going to give up our right. We're not going to give up our property," Lowe quotes Chikhi stating, "Quite simply because it's something that belongs to us. What's mine is mine. I'm not going to sign away our national heritage." In contrast, Lemoin is quoted as asserting that the archives "are considered under French law sovereign archives that are not transferable."  The French legal position, therefore, appears comparable to what France asserted in the case of the royal archives known as Uigwe seized in Korea in 1866 - namely, that the archives have become inalienable property of the French government.

The unique value of archives extending beyond the historical and cultural

The contested archives also illustrate how archives are often distinct from other forms of cultural property that have purely cultural or historical value. Lowe notes: "The row has practical implications for Algeria because some of the documents held in French institutions contain technical data; maps of underground sewers, gas pipes and electricity lines."

Despite the continuing controversy and the lack of a final resolution, Lowe's piece notes that "the Algerian and French national archives have a decent working relationship" and that they "signed a cooperation agreement in 2009 and let each other's researchers study, and sometimes copy, some documents."