Brussels supports reference to Holocaust in GDPR

02.12.2015

Since 2012 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has been concerned with the potential impact of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on Holocaust research. While IHRA supports the EU decision to ensure the protection of personal data, the organization has always maintained that it is crucial that the right to be forgotten does not conflict with the responsibility to remember.

Each year IHRA is chaired by a different country and the issue of the draft GDPR and Holocaust research was of great importance to the Canadian (2013) and UK (2014) IHRA Chairmanships. The current IHRA Chair, Hungarian State Secretary for European Affairs Szabolcs Takács, has also made the issue of the draft GDPR a priority throughout the Hungarian Chairmanship in 2015.

Despite the draft GDPR making exemptions for historical records and records of public interest (article 83) and stating that it does not apply to the deceased, the broad language utilised in the draft Regulation unintentionally threatens Holocaust research. After two years of research and analysis, IHRA has determined definitively that researchers and research organizations are already being denied access to Holocaust-related materials on the premise that GDPR will not permit the use of these materials, despite the fact that the regulation has not yet been adopted.

Now the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union has proposed an amendment to the draft GDPR that offers a solution to the issue, by including a direct reference to the need to ensure access to records that bear on the Holocaust, as well as other genocides, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  Therefore, IHRA is hopeful that the Council and the Members of the European Parliament will confirm their support for this amendment in December when the EU legislators achieve a political agreement on the entire text of the GDPR, which will formally be adopted in 2016.

Dr Kathrin Meyer, IHRA Executive Secretary said that she was “pleased but not surprised that Brussels has now taken IHRA's point on board.” Dr Meyer added “over the last two years, IHRA has addressed the GDPR issue with numerous key stakeholders in the European Union, all of whom confirmed that restrictions on the accessibility of Holocaust-related archives would be an unintentional and highly undesirable effect of the GDPR. This being the case, I am encouraged that those responsible for the Regulation are now looking at ways to remove this risk.”

Throughout discussions, stakeholders in Brussels repeatedly pointed out that such refusals from archives could always be challenged in court. However, Péter Nikolicza, second secretary to the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU, explained the need for a specific reference to the Holocaust:

“European bureaucrats and lawyers, who wield immense influence, do not understand the difficulties created by their legislation. If they were to request documents at an archive, they would know how to respond and would counter that the legislation is still in draft and does not preclude accessing Holocaust archives. The problem is if you are not a lawyer but a researcher and want to do the same and you get this refusal, you don’t know what to do.” 

Dr. Robert Williams of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Chair of IHRA's Committee on Archival Access, has been instrumental in advising IHRA throughout the process and noted that “IHRA was uniquely placed to bring this issue to the attention of those responsible for the GDPR. IHRA is the only intergovernmental organization which brings together both political representatives and academic experts working on Holocaust-related issues and the organization provided the forum for researchers to communicate their serious concerns about the GDPR directly to the political level. This is a key example of the need for an international organization such as IHRA which keeps the Holocaust firmly on the political agenda.”

Considering the supreme importance the Holocaust played in the foundation of the European community following World War II and in light of rising antisemitism across Europe, which is most often connected to distortion and denial of the Holocaust, the consequences of a decrease in Holocaust research would be disastrous.

 24 of IHRA’s 31 member countries are also members of the European Union. IHRA’s founding document, the Stockholm Declaration, to which all 31 member countries are committed, states the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and obliges countries to “take all necessary steps to facilitate the opening of archives in order to ensure that all documents bearing on the Holocaust are available to researchers.”

A press kit outlining the issue is available here.