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Because CRM readers recognize the important role cultural resources can play in contemporary social issues, I am writing to encourage further attention to the ways in which treatment of history can be understood as a bellwether for human rights. As CRM practitioners are aware, memory is a central terrain on which democracies are constructed, negotiated, and secured for the future. Local and international bodies increasingly recognize the inextricable relationship between history and human rights. Democratizing history, and using history to sustain a healthy democracy, requires public forums for people to wrestle with their pasts, in all its glories and dishonors. A growing movement of such places that call themselves "Sites of Conscience" is taking shape in communities around the world. Communities from Serbia to Senegal are recognizing that dynamic, responsive spaces for public dialogue on the past and its contemporary legacies today can be vital tools for building an active, engaged citizenry that questions authority, embraces debate, and builds a culture of political freedom.
For example, the justices of the South African Constitutional Court placed their new court building on the site of the infamous Old Fort prison, and created a public space for people both to remember the abrogation of justice under Apartheid and debate the current questions of justice before the Court. The Monte Sole Peace School brings Italian youth to the ruins of a village destroyed in a Nazi massacre in debates over the responsibility of all sectors of Italian society for what happened there, as a starting point for discussions about individual responsibility for issues like xenophobia and racism in Italy today. Russian memory sites like the Gulag Museum at Perm-36 are taking courageous steps to give voice to the many different experiences of the Soviet era and how their legacies are felt today.
Creating ongoing spaces for debate on all aspects of the past and its implications for an ever-shifting present reality can help to build a popular culture of democratic engagement. Those who work in the field of cultural resource management have important roles to play as stewards of tangible heritage, including archives, because every nation's treatment of its past needs to be taken seriously as a bellwether for its commitment to human rights.
Director, The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience