Remembering Is a Radical Act
For over twenty years, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has partnered with communities the world over to shine a bright light on the truth, past and present, mobilizing memory to expose injustice and counter impunity. By documenting, preserving, and confronting histories of violations, affected communities can emerge from conflict and other traumatic histories equipped to demand accountability, to advocate for systemic change, and to actively engage in violence prevention.
Preserving Memory, Promoting Truth and Pursuing Justice
Today, dictators, autocrats, repressive regimes and white nationalists around the world are attempting to rewrite the past in attempts to secure their own power. To counter these grave threats to democracy and human rights, communities need dedicated spaces to collect and share the memories of the most marginalized, stigmatized, and vulnerable among us – and then harness those stories to fight for justice.
Sites of Conscience are those spaces.
The Gambia: Elevating Victims’ Voices
Gambian society was deeply traumatized by the regime of Yahya Jammeh, who used torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances to silence dissenters during his 22-year dictatorship (1994-2017). Since 2019, our Global Initiative for Justice, Truth, and Reconciliation (GIJTR) has provided support for local civil society organizations in The Gambia to ensure that women and other marginalized groups are included in the country’s transitional justice process.
Among our many activities, in 2022 GIJTR supported a “child-friendly” version of The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s final report, and celebrated the one-year anniversary of the opening of “The Memory House,” a memorial center founded by ANEKED, a Site of Conscience in The Gambia, which houses the exhibition “The Duty to Remember,” originally a traveling exhibit funded by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
Rohingya Refugees: Safeguarding Survivors’ Stories
Since January 2020, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has been on the ground in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh helping to establish and train a cohort of Rohingya documenters to credibly and professionally collect information about human rights abuses in a way that respects the dignity of victims, survivors, and witnesses, and can contribute to future accountability mechanisms.
Working with community leaders, we have also trained hundreds of civilians on human rights and accountability, and are implementing arts and truth-telling initiatives that assist communities in coming to terms with the past in a manner that promotes healing, accountability, and reconciliation.
Colombia: Leaving No Stone Unturned
Since its launch in 2018, our GIJTR has advised the Colombian Truth Commission on tools for collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of the survivors of the country’s conflict, which killed over 200,000 people between 1958-2013. We have also built capacities in forensic techniques and human identification, training technical staff of the Search Unit for Missing Persons and over 200 representatives of victims associations.
In addition, we have funded and led 25 truth-telling projects in rural communities throughout the country, including a 2022 podcast series based on survivors’ testimonies. Working directly with survivors to record their memories serves as an acknowledgement of their experiences, and also verifies facts related to violations. To ensure this information is widely disseminated, we partnered with seven civil society organizations to share their archives and findings in accessible formats.
In partnership with our member sites, who are trusted entities in their communities, we have also provided opportunities for survivors to meet with members of the Truth Commission, and advised members of the Truth Commission on how to effectively communicate with survivors.
Montpelier: Correcting the Record in Hallowed Halls
Sites of Conscience often face significant challenges as they attempt to “correct the record.” For over two decades, long-time member Montpelier – which preserves the former home of US President and slaveholder James Madison – was recognized as a leader among historic sites for its collaborative work between descendant communities, staff, board members, and scholars. In Spring 2022, however, the board voted to strip descendants of their power-sharing status, thereby drastically reducing their influence over the stories shared at the site, causing much frustration among descendants and Montpelier staff who overwhelmingly supported them.
Having provided the site with training on external storytelling in programs and exhibits in the past, our team was perfectly positioned to support them during this crisis, facilitating internal conversations about relationships at the site, as well as publicly – and successfully – advocating for an immediate return to their equitable approach to power-sharing. Today, the descendant community’s representatives are once again vital and equal decision-makers at the site.
Afghanistan: Remembrance. Resistance. Results.
Staff and family members of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) were safely relocated to Canada in January 2022, following an advocacy campaign led by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in which over 100 Sites of Conscience lent their support to their colleagues in need. Since August 2021, when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, AHRDO, which has been a member for over a decade, has continued to monitor and document human rights violations in the country. In June 2022, the organization completed documentation of over 150 cases of human rights violations, including murder, torture, arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, and extortion.
Maison des Esclaves:
New Research, New Understandings, New Opportunities
Few places in the world capture the magnitude and brutality of the slave trade like La Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island in Senegal, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Africa, and a founding member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Built around 1785, the red house on the Atlantic Ocean shares the history and narratives of the vast transatlantic slave trade. Since its founding as a museum in 1962, the historic site has welcomed thousands of visitors, including Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and Barack and Michelle Obama.
In recent years, a lack of resources posed serious challenges to both the site’s physical structure and its program offerings, which did not reflect the most updated research about the site’s history.
With support from the Ford Foundation and the Senegalese government, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience oversaw a major revitalization of the site from 2017-2022, working with the local community and a Senegalese-majority scientific committee composed of archeologists, historians, and preservationists to update the site’s interpretation and program offerings. Maison des Esclaves is now providing thousands of visitors every year with an enhanced understanding of the slave trade that specifically encourages them to look deeper and make vital connections between this history and its modern counterparts from sex trafficking to forced migration.
Every Victim Has a Name: Memorial, Russia
Memorial, a long-time Site of Conscience and the leading voice for human rights in Russia, was a recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their work amplifying victims’ experiences of Soviet repression, and supporting free expression in the country today. In 2019, Memorial’s offices were attacked by the Russian government, which in 2022 formally liquidated the site – a move condemned by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in a statement signed by nearly 100 other Sites of Conscience.
“Memory always has a human dimension,” Grigory Vaypan, a lawyer at Memorial, said in his keynote address at our 2022 GIJTR Annual Meeting in Cyprus. “Every victim has a name. They are not just numbers – they are human stories, human tragedies. We should see them and think about them as human beings.”