The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has distributed this statement pertaining to the recent raid and seizure of Human Rights Center Memorial’s archive (thanks Bryan and Sam for forwarding):

“The recent police raid and removal of archives relating to the Stalinist era from the St. Petersburg Research and Information Center Memorial was rightfully condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as a threat to the freedom of Russian NGOs. But the attack has more specific implications.

Memory is a central terrain on which democracies are constructed, negotiated, and secured for the future. The inextricable relationship between history and human rights is increasingly being recognized by local and international bodies. During its recent bid to enter the European Union, Turkey’s refusal to take responsibility for the Armenian genocide was judged as a key indicator of its commitment to human rights. Conversely, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in half a dozen countries, from South Africa to Peru, have mandated spaces for remembering and confronting the most difficult aspects of their nations’ histories, recognizing this as a fundamental requirement of an open society. Yet even supposed open society leaders are not taken to task for closed histories: while Canada recently began a Truth and Reconciliation process to confront its policy of Native Residential Schools, the United States, who was the first to invent the policy and export it to Canada, has made no such effort, and Boarding School sites decay in obscurity across the country. Russia and all governments must be held accountable for maintaining open access to their pasts.

This is not a simple matter of whether an archive is open or closed. Even if Memorial’s material were returned to them unharmed, the underlying conflict over the different meanings of Russia’s difficult past remains, keeping Memorial’s vision of a lasting culture of human rights under serious threat. 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. And despite a rising climate of fear and repression, Russian memory sites are taking courageous steps to give voice to the many different experiences of the Soviet era and how their legacies are felt today.

Erasing the memory of past political repression and the resistance against it lays a strong foundation for cultures of repression today. Creating ongoing spaces for debate on all aspects of the past and its implications for a ever shifting present reality, on the other hand, can build a popular culture of democratic engagement. Every nation’s treatment of its past needs to be taken seriously as a bellwether for its commitment to human rights.”

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