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CWIHP Archives Update: Access to Archives of Intergovernmental Organizations

Trudy H. Peterson

CWIHP Archives Update:
Access to Archives of Intergovernmental Organizations
By Trudy Huskamp Peterson

The international organizations formed during and after World War II came of age during the Cold War. Their records are crucial sources for understanding the Cold War period. As they approach middle age, these organizations are increasingly providing public access to their archives. The arrival of key anniversaries for the organizations (such as a fiftieth year), the spread of Freedom of Information legislation in member states, the late twentieth century emphasis on transparency for good governance, and possibly the ending of the Cold War are responsible for this increased openness. The UN family of organizations has not developed a central archival facility, so researchers must travel to each of the UN agencies—in Montreal, New York, Washington, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Vienna, and so on—in order to use the records, which continue to be in the custody of the creating agency or its successor.

The best single source for information on archives in international organizations is the UNESCO international archives guide. The information on access in the guide is sometimes out of date, but the guide provides links to the archives themselves, which is extremely helpful.

In late 2004 I asked each of the UN specialized agencies, two UN programs (UNHCR and WFP), and two UN-related organizations (WTO and IAEA) to summarize its access policy. In addition, I contacted NATO, OECD, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The survey results follow:

FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization
FAO Records and Archives Unit
Administrative Services Division
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, I-00100 Rome, Italy
Fax: 06-5705 4123
Phone: 06-5705 2866

Records are open when 15 years old, except personnel records and "confidential" records on which the Director-General, on recommendation of the Archivist, can lift restrictions.

IAEA: International Atomic Energy Agency
Wagramer Strasse 5, 1220 Vienna, Austria
Postal address: P.O. Box 100, A-1400 Vienna Austria
Telegrams: INATOM Vienna
Telex: 1-12645
Fax: +43 1 26007
Tel: +43 1 2600-0

Records are open when 40 years old if no restrictive access limitations apply under classified handling procedures. Records less than 40 years old can be used "on condition that the Permanent Mission or competent national authority of the requester has endorsed the request and subject to the written consent of the office of origin." The Director General or his "authorized representative" can give access to classified records.

ICAO: International Civil Aviation Organization
999 University Street, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 5H7, Canada
Tel: (514)954-6230;
Fax: (514) 954-6077

The Director of Administration, based on the recommendation of the Chief, Web, Library and Archives, authorizes access. ICAO headquarters exercises no control over regional office records; regional offices provides access on their own

ICRC: International Committee of the Red Cross
19, avenue de la Paix, CH–1202 Geneva
Tel: (++41 22) 734 60 01
Fax: (++41 22) 733 20 57
Telex 23 867
The ICRC Archives Division can also be contacted directly by e-mail at the following address:
Further information on the ICRC can be found on the ICRC Web Site, at the following addresses:
in English:

Records are open when the file has been closed for 40 years. Personnel files and files containing "personal or medical information" are available when 60 years old; however, when files are 40 years old the archives may provide information from the files but not the files themselves; if the permission is obtained from the individual concerned "the 40-year period may be shortened."

IFAD: International Fund for Agricultural Development
107, Via del Serafico, Rome, 00142 Italy
Tel: (39-6) 54592307
Fax:(39-6) 5043463

Formal project documents (such as project appraisal reports and country strategic opportunities papers), legal documents (agreements), evaluations, studies, policy papers, reports, governing body documents, financial documents, and environmental documents are released after internal review is completed. No correspondence, office memoranda, or other internal working documents are available. Also permanently closed are personnel records, verbatim deliberations of the Executive Board and Governing Council, information provided on a "confidential or restricted basis" unless the submitting party consents to the release; internal audit reports; IFAD investment strategy; IFAD resource mobilization strategy; and disbursement status of loans and grants and recovery status of loan charges. [Note: information from IFAD website; no response to survey]

IFRC: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
P.O. Box 372, 1211 Geneva 9, Switzerland
Tel: (41 22) 7304239
Fax: (41 22) 7330395
The Archives can also be contacted by e-mail at the following address: (please type Archives in the Subject line)

Decisions of the General Assembly and the Governing Board and non-confidential policies and reports adopted through a decision of either body are public. Minutes and reports of statutory bodies are open when 21 years old. "Non-confidential" records of the Secretariat are open when 31 years old; confidential records that contain personal information about individuals are never made public. If a Secretariat record less than 31 years old or a confidential record that does not contain personal information is requested, the Archivist will forward the request to the Secretary General for decision on opening the record; the Secretary General's decision is final.

ILO: International Labour Organization
International Labour Office (ILO), Historical Archives
4, route des Morillons, CH 1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland
Tel: +41.22.799.61.11 or direct +41.22.799.78.57
Fax: +41.22.798.86.85

Records are open when 30 years old; personnel records are open when 50 years, "special access" is provided for records of more recent date if authorized by the Director-General.

IMF: International Monetary Fund
Tel: 202-623-5950
Fax: number: 202-623-7175
Postal address: International Monetary Fund, Archives and Records Management, IS 11-400, 700 19th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20431

Most Executive Board documents that are more than five years old are open except for items classified as "Secret" or "Strictly Confidential;" Executive Board minutes that are more than ten years old are open. All other archival materials are open when 20 years old, except "(i) legal documents protected by attorney-client privilege; (ii) confidential documentary materials provided to the Fund by external parties, including member countries, their agencies and central banks, unless such parties consent to their declassification; (iii) personnel files, medical and other records pertaining to individuals; and (iv) documents and proceedings of the IMF Grievance Committee." Access to Fund records classified as "Secret" or "Strictly Confidential" will be granted upon the Managing Director's consent to the declassification of the records, or by the consent of persons he may designate.

ITU: International Telecommunication Union
Place des Nations, 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland
Tel:: +41 22 730 51 11
E-mail :
Internet :
Archives Service
Tel:: +41 22 730 67 70
Fax: +41 22 730 53 26
E-mail :

"Most" records are open 30 years after the date of the item or, in the case of a file, 30 years from the date of the most recent item in the file. Records containing personal data are closed.

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NATO Headquarters are located along Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels. The official postal address is:
NATO Headquarters, B - 1110 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: (32.2)707.41.11
Fax: (32.2) 707.41.17
Telex: 23.867

Formal documents created by the North Atlantic Council and its subordinate bodies and the Military Committee in specific notational series (for example, the documents market PO/ from the Private Office of the Secretary General) more than 30 years ago are "eligible for public disclosure" review. Information affect the privacy of an individual is restricted until "100 years from the date of birth of the person to whom the information relates." Records containing "confidential commercial information" are not disclosed "unless the party concerned consents to its disclosure." Records less than 30 years old from these offices may be considered for disclosure on an ad hoc basis by the North Atlantic Council. Records of the Military Headquarters (SHAPE, for example) and other NATO bodies as well as the files created by the International Staff are not covered by these disclosure rules. NATO currently has a pilot program for the declassification and release of some files in these categories, based on a process of consulting all nations holding "an equity in the record" before making an access decision.

OECD: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
75775 Paris Cedex 16 , France
Tel: 33 1 45 24 82 00
Fax: 33 1 45 24 85 00
Internet address:
Archives and Records Management Service: Tel: 33 1 45 24 75 86; Fax: 33 1 45 24 16 03; e-mail:
Internet address:

Records generally open when 10 years old. [Note: Information from oral remarks by OECD archivist in September 2004; no response to survey]

UN: United Nations Secretariat
United Nations Archives and Records Centre
Postal address: FF 109, United Nations, New York, NY 10017
Location: 304 East 45th Street, New York, NY 10017
Tel: 212 963 4226; Fax: 212 963 4414
UN website:

Public access to United Nations records is defined in United Nations Secretariat Administrative Instruction ST/AI/326 of 28 December 1984, which says in Section 4.b:

"Members of the public may have access to (i) archives and records that were accessible at the time of their creation, (ii) those which are more than 20 years old and not subject to restrictions imposed by the Secretary-General, and (iii) those which are less than 20 years old and not subject to restrictions imposed by the Secretary-General, on condition that the originating office has given written consent for access.

Declassification is governed by Section.4.c: "Records as to which the Secretary-General or his authorized representatives have imposed restrictions may be declassified at any time by the same authority. Records that remain restricted when transferred to the Archives will be declassified automatically or be subjected to a declassification review when 20 years old. Those remaining restricted after 20 years shall undergo further declassification review at 5-year intervals. . ."

For United Nations records over 20 years old, a classified record is one that has been classified as "Strictly Confidential." This classification includes all Code Cables and the previous security classifications of "Confidential (Class III)," "For Your Eyes Only," and "Top Secret." It may extend to records marked "Privileged," "Personal," or "Limited." Annex I of ST/AI/326, "Guidelines concerning the classification and declassification of the records and archives of the Secretary-General," specifies in Section 5:

Classified records that have been transferred to the Archives still maintaining their original classification should be declassified as follows:
(a) Records classified as SG – Strictly Confidential shall be reviewed by the Archives for possible declassification when 20 years old. At the expiration of this time-limit, records so classified shall be declassified only up on explicit ad hoc, item-by-item, approval by the Secretary-General or by such officials as the Secretary-General so authorizes. SG – Strictly Confidential records, not approved for declassification when 20 years old, shall be reviewed by the Archives for possible declassification every 5 years thereafter, following the above procedures.
(b) Records classified as SG- Confidential shall be declassified automatically by the Archives upon the expiration of 20 years.

The UN provisions also apply to UNOG (United Nations European Office in Geneva), UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), UNHCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNICEF (United Nations Children's Emergency Fund), UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), and other UN programs, funds, and institutes.

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France
Telex: 270602 Paris or 204461 Paris
Archives, Records Management and Microform Division

Secretariat records, correspondence and administrative files are open for consultation when 30 years old, counted from the most recent item in the file, with the exception of the following which are closed for 50 years: 910 files containing exceptionally sensitive information on relations between UNESCO and governments and organizations, (2) records that, "if divulged, might injure the reputation, affect the privacy or endanger the safety of individuals, (3) personnel records, (4) confidential files of the offices of the Director-General, Deputy Director-General and Assistant Directors-General. The Archivist has the authority to lift restrictions.

UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
UNHCR Headquarters is located at:
96 rue de Montbrillant, CH-1202 Geneva, Switzerland.
Postal Address: Case Postale 2500, CH-1211 Geneva 2 Depot

Records open when 20 years old, except (1) records that contain information the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or a libel of a living person, (2) records containing confidential business and financial information, (3) records containing confidential employment or personnel information, (4) materials relating to investigations, (5) records containing information regarding confidential decision-making, or (6) records specified by donors to be restricted for a period of time. The Archivist has the authority to lift restrictions. Individual case files on refugees and related records are closed for 75 years, or until the refugee is known to be deceased or when the refugee gives permission for the file to be made available.

UPU: Universal Postal Union
International Bureau, Case Postale 133000, Berne 15, Switzerland
Tel: +41 31 350 31 11
Fax: +41 31 350 31 10

Records that are not "confidential" can be consulted "with the prior authorization of the Director of Communication and Postal Markets."

WHO: World Health Organization
Avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
Telex: 415416 Geneve.
Tel: (41 22) 791 21 11
Fax: (41 22) 791 07 46
WHO web site:

Records open when 20 years old except for records whose release might endanger "personal safety or privacy," which are released when 60 years old.

WIPO: World Intellectual Property Organization
Postal address: 34, chemin des Colombettes, 1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland
Telegraphic address: OMPI
Telex: CH - 412 912
Tel: (41-22) 338 91 11
Facsimile: (41-22) 733 54 28

WMO: World Meteorological Organization
7 bis Avenue de la Paix, Case postale No. 2300, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
Telex: 414199 OMM CH
Fax: 004122 730 81 81
Tel: 004122 730.81.11
E-mail (archives only)

Up to the present time, requests for release of WMO papers to the public have been dealt with on an ad hoc basis. In general WMO follows the 30-year rule recommended by the ICA for papers which are unclassified. Therefore, such papers can be released without systematically consulting WMO. Papers of a confidential nature would have to obtain clearance from WMO prior to release to the public.

World Bank Group
World Bank Group Archives
1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20433, USA
Tel: 202-473-2000
Fax: 202-522-2761

Formal operational documents (such as Country Assistance Strategies), research papers, some financial information about the Bank, and operational policies are released after internal review is completed. Historical information is publicly available 20 years after issuance; however, no correspondence (either internal or external), office memoranda, or other internal working documents are available. Also closed are personnel records, proceedings of the Board of Executive Directors and its committees, records containing information "provided to the Bank on the explicit or implied understanding that they will not be disclosed outside the Bank, or that they may not be disclosed without the consent of the source," records subject to attorney-client privilege, and records containing certain types of financial information. On a case-by-case basis, some researchers may be granted special access. The disclosure policy and its implementation is subject to regular review; the next formal review is scheduled for June 2006. The above policy applies only to the records of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association; separate rules apply to the records of the International Finance Corporation, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

WTO: World Trade Organization
World Trade Organization Centre , William Rappard, rue de Lausanne 154, 1211 Genève 21, Switzerland
Tél. (41-22)739 51 11
Fax: (41-22)731 42 06
Telex : 412 324 OMC/WTO, GENEVE
E-Mail :
Internet :

Procedures for distribution of WTO documents were adopted by the General Council on 18 July 1996. Depending on the series, documents may be flagged for either general or restricted distribution. Documents in restricted distribution are made public after a certain period which varies depending on the document category. Lists of documents in restricted and general distribution are regularly published by the Secretariat.

About the Author

Trudy H. Peterson

Trudy H. Peterson

Former Public Policy Scholar;
Consulting Archivist
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