The need to remember often competes with the equally strong pressure to forget. Even with the best of intentions – such as to promote reconciliation after deeply divided events by “turning the page” – erasing the past can prevent new generations from learning critical lessons and destroy opportunities to build a peaceful future.
A Site of Conscience is a place of memory – such as a historic site, place-based museum or memorial – that prevents this erasure from happening in order to ensure a more just and humane future. Not only do Sites of Conscience provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories, but they enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues. In this way, a concentration camp in Europe becomes a catalyst for discussions on modern xenophobia; a Gulag museum in Russia highlights repression of free speech now; and a 200-year-old slave house in Africa sparks action to help the 36 million people who are still enslaved today.
Founded in 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (“the Coalition”) is the only worldwide network of Sites of Conscience. With over 200 members in 55 countries, we build the capacity of these vital institutions through grants, networking, training, transitional justice mechanisms and advocacy. These members and partners remember a variety of histories and come from a wide range of settings – including long-standing democracies, countries struggling with legacies of violence, as well as post-conflict regions just beginning to address their transitional justice needs – but they are all united by their common commitment to connect past to present, memory to action.
Through the efforts of Sites of Conscience, today:
- Mothers from different sides of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009) are sharing their stories in community workshops that employ holistic, integrated, and multidisciplinary approaches to address issues of truth, justice and reconciliation;
- Youth from every region of the United States are using the history of the civil rights movement to amplify their voices in the fight to make educational opportunities more equitable;
- Police officers from both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland are telling their stories in an oral history project designed to foster trust and understanding among the two factions;
- And thousands of rural school children are being educated through a traveling exhibit about the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) – a war that took the lives of 70,000 people, but which many adults are hesitant to discuss because they fear opening old wounds.
Every one of these activities – and thousands more underway around the globe – has its roots in the past and its sights on the future. Through these conscious and united efforts, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience connects past to present, changing the world one memory at a time.
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