On the fifth anniversary of the founding of the UW Center for Human Rights’ Freedom of Information project in June 2017, the University of Washington Libraries have published a collection of declassified United States government documents which the Center obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. UWCHR Research Fellow Emily Willard shares the history of this ongoing project:
In the summer of 2012, while working as a research associate at the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute in Washington, DC, I hosted two interns, Mina Manuchehri and Janey Greenstein, from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) to train them how to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. I was working on the Evidence Project at the National Security Archive, conducting human rights research on Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador, and was eager for the opportunity to support the UWCHR’s work on conducting research of U.S. declassified documents for the Center’s Unfinished Sentences project. Janey and Mina returned to the University of Washington after their internship and started filing and organizing the Center’s own FOIA requests. Over several years, they built the project from the ground up, filing dozens of requests and appeals in response to research needs of our partners in El Salvador.
“Why does the U.S. Government have documents relevant to human rights abuses in El Salvador?”, you might ask. Well, due to the long history of United States involvement in Latin American affairs, through coups, funding of militaries, and U.S. corporate, political, and financial interests, declassified U.S. government documents provide key evidence of human rights violations by governments and militaries in this region. The U.S. government has worked, and continues to work closely with the Salvadoran government to protect U.S. national interests, providing for a massive documentary record. For decades, the National Security Archive and other researchers have used the Freedom of Information Act to bring to light key information about U.S. foreign policy issues and human rights information.
Now, five years later, I am a Research Fellow at the UWCHR and a PhD candidate at University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. In the past five years, our FOIA team has grown to include a team of interns; we have filed over 500 FOIA requests, and in 2015, the UWCHR sued the Central Intelligence Agency under the FOIA for improperly withholding documents.
This month we hit another milestone with the publication of our declassified documents database. The collection currently contains 284 declassified full-text searchable documents, and is available to the public through the University of Washington Libraries. As the government releases additional documents in response to our FOIA requests, we will add them to our collection, enabling permanent, public access to these, and future records released to the UWCHR through the El Salvador FOIA project.
Another main component of the FOIA project is our internship program. Student researchers founded this project, and continue to be the driving force behind our work. Through the FOIA internship program, undergraduate students learn how to conduct in-depth human rights research, document analysis, and how to research, file, request, and appeal FOIA requests. The internship experience provides students with unique research skills to advance their academic and professional careers, as well as fostering the growth of a new generation of FOIA requesters.
We are currently supporting renewed justice efforts in El Salvador, conducting research, writing reports, filing FOIA requests, and collecting declassified U.S. documents as evidence for human rights criminal trials in El Salvador which have re-emerged after the lifting of the amnesty law last year. We are also focusing our freedom of information skills on local and federal agencies in Washington State as part of our Human Rights at Home project.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to work at the Center as part of the team supporting the historic and urgent work of our partners in El Salvador, and for the opportunity to provide public access to these documents.