On Aug. 31, the United States returned a final batch of Baath Party archives to Iraq. These documents detail the inner workings of the party that ruled Iraq from the 1960s until 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded and deposed longtime dictator Saddam Hussein. Coalition forces removed these papers from Iraq in 2005, and the archives eventually ended up at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

What makes these documents so important — and a source of controversy? They detail the crimes of an authoritarian state, from the collaborations of citizens to the predations of state officials. My research demonstrates how these crimes affected historic institutions, including the Shi’a religious establishment, in peacebuilding post-2003. Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya and U.S. officials had urged the documents be removed, to protect them from destruction. But many Iraqis later criticized the decision to move the archives from Iraq in the first place.

Who owns these archives? And what’s in them?

These documents join an earlier batch returned to Iraq in 2013 — though digitized copies remain at Stanford. The documents are now with the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Ironically, as part of the Iraqi Memory Foundation, Kadhimi and a handful of individuals, in coordination with coalition forces, unilaterally made the call to transport the archives to the United States, without a legislative act and approval of Iraqis.

Part of the controversy surrounding these archives is the fact they include sensitive information about individuals, both victims and perpetrators, who may still be living today, potentially putting them at risk of harm or exposure. Documents include, for instance, personnel files on Baath Party members, registers of schoolchildren and lists of clerics. Although researchers who accessed these files at the Hoover Institute were asked to not record personal information, the terms of access were established without input from the Iraqi people.

These archives might have facilitated a smoother postwar transition

In 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority — the organization tasked with leading Iraq through the post-war transition — issued two orders designed to dismantle the remnants of the Baath Party. The first order dissolved the party while the second dissolved various institutions and leadership positions associated with it.

Many scholars of Iraq’s “de-Baathification” say the process should have involved vetting party members to determine the extent of their involvement. Instead, the process proved to be a costly purge that did not distinguish between actual complicity and membership for bureaucratic reasons. At the same time, the exclusion of some complicit figures also failed to satisfy the victims of Baathist crimes, who only saw certain top officials go to trial. The lack of justice left many within Iraq’s ethno-religious communities with competing senses of victimhood.

The archives included potential evidence of the extent of involvement of certain individuals in the Baath Party’s crimes against citizens. This information could have been used to make de-Baathification less vague. Instead, the lack of access to this information risks the development of a revisionist history of Iraq that ignores Baathist crimes altogether.

The use of archives is not new in transitional justice

Transitional justice refers to a process of providing redress for victims of war, conflict and authoritarianism. It aims to minimize resentment in divided societies to carve a path toward sustainable and inclusive state-building by addressing the past rather than ignoring it.

The Baath Party archives, for instance, could have aided the transitional justice effort early on by presenting evidence of crimes committed. These documents might have provided closure for many Iraqis who still do not know what happened to family members.

Instead, the Iraqi state addressed Baathist crimes by providing monthly reparations to victims. The population of Iraq has nearly doubled since 2003 and the government struggles to afford these payments in addition to a large public sector payroll, mainly funded by oil sales.

The reparations program has facilitated a culture of patronage politics associated with political parties that enacted these policies. Despite coming from government coffers, citizens viewed the reparations as political handouts, rather than compensation for past victimization.

These costly reparations might have been avoided — or Iraq could have issued one-time payments. But this would have required the earlier initiation of a process of transitional justice that used these archives prudently, redacting personal information, for instance. The goal, as suggested by the late Iraqi sociologist Faleh Jabar, would have been to provide public information about the former regime’s predatory behavior. Public acknowledgment of the crimes committed and the communities victimized could have encouraged intercommunal dialogue and eased feelings of resentment.

Iraq has not preserved its historical memory

Iraq’s young population has begun to exhibit signs of nostalgia for the Baath Party, also fueled by the underwhelming performance of post-2003 governments. The government could have used these archives to inform and preserve public memory of Iraq’s recent history as insurance against a backslide into authoritarianism throughout the difficult path of democratization. Archival material could have been used to establish museums, memorials and libraries.

Recent research from Laia Balcells, Valeria Palanza and Elsa Voytas, for example, has demonstrated that visiting transitional justice museums makes individuals more likely to support pardoning perpetrators, compensating victims, rejecting authoritarian political institutions and supporting democratic ones.

While there are archives and museums in the cities of Najaf and Sulaymaniyah, there has been limited progress toward a national museum in Baghdad dedicated to preserving the tragedy of Iraq’s experience under Baathism. The National Center for Documentation of Baath Crimes — part of the Establishment of Martyrs — is located in Baghdad’s International Zone and is thus inaccessible to most Iraqis.

The Iraqi government has yet to issue public plans for the use of the archives. Certainly, fears of the misuse of archival information remain a concern, whether in Baghdad or on the Stanford campus. In Baghdad, Iraqi scholars may have greater access to these documents, and an opportunity to put this information to use in fortifying a shared sense of national unity at a time of authoritarian nostalgia and political turmoil.

Marsin Alshamary holds a PhD in political science from MIT and is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution.