Memory is an important force at work in daily life. Recently the International Review of the Red Cross published an edition on “Memory and war”. This edition unpacks the ways that individual and collective memory of armed conflict impacts the lives of those affected by war and examines commemoration and remembrance practices that authorities and communities undertake after war has ended.
The Australian Red Cross and the ICRC Mission in Australia co-organized a launch of this issue further exploring the role of memory and war. The video of this event is now available online.
The role of memory is not always visible, but it operates behind the scenes to shape the future. For the ICRC, memory is a force at work both in the contexts it operates and within the institution itself.  This blog post is based on the presentations made by the authors at the online launch event as well as some additional reflections.

Memory and war

Memory has a strong effect on personal identity and helps to construe and reaffirm collective identities. In war, fighters who are killed on the battlefield are often seen by society as “heroes”, and their stories may be romanticized or even mythologized. This can also be true for humanitarians, with figures like Henry Dunant, Clara Barton  and Florence Nightingale looming large in the collective memory of the profession.

Long after hostilities have concluded, the memories remain and can have a profound impact on the population, including those who were children at the time of the conflict. People affected by war may both suffer from traumatic memories and at the same time show great resilience. The memories of individuals can play a role in shaping the peace that follows. One way is through their testimonies before mechanisms set up to deal with the past. For example, increasing accountability and a drive to make victims’ voices heard is an important aspect of transitional justice processes and may have the potential to bring closure. Relatedly, there might be a particular duty for those who fight to remember trauma to avoid repetition of past mistakes or simply out of a sense of honor and acknowledgement of the gravity of war’s varied consequences. The ethical, legal and societal implications of memory modification as a treatment for trauma have been explored in both academia and pop culture.

As it is often said (sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill), history is written by the victor, and therefore generally speaking the collective memories of non-dominant groups can be at risk of being forgotten, ignored or pushed aside if they are different from the narrative of the majority. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of the danger of a single story for how we perceive the world, and indeed reaffirming narratives of exclusively dominant groups may be used as a tool to serve a political agenda or to create propaganda to influence society in times of both armed conflict and peace. The narrative or narratives surrounding past conflicts can affect inter-group attitudes and social cohesion, as observed in Liberia.

The memory of past suffering can drive positive social change, as seen in the calls of “never again” when remembering past atrocities. It was the memory of immense suffering of the wounded in Solferino that triggered Henry Dunant to write his book A Memory of Solferino, giving birth to the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. In his book East West Street, Philippe Sands explored the way the memories of WWII survivors inspired legal developments post-WWII. One might say that the memory of suffering is what drove the drafters of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Why is memory important for the ICRC

While memory, being collective or individual, plays a prominent role during and in the aftermath of armed conflict, it is equally an important concept for the ICRC. Being the oldest modern humanitarian organization, the ICRC has a long and rich history. The memory of past actions feeds our current operations.

For example, it helps us to understand the long-term implications of our work. It is a key and necessary element to ensure operational continuity and coherence – or what could be called in an inelegant manner “business continuity”. Yet, institutional memory constitutes a challenge for an organization like the ICRC. Expatriate delegates move from one assignment to another every year or every two years. This turn-over of mobile staff results in a huge loss of experience every time someone finishes her/his assignment. Fortunately, resident staff, the clear majority of ICRC colleagues all over the world, have a much longer vision of what was carried out over the past years. They are the “keepers” of our memory. But this is not sufficient, and the institutional memory eventually relies on archives.

The need for operational continuity is particularly relevant in countries where the ICRC has been working for decades; the ICRC has been present in its 10 largest operations for an average of 42 years. For instance, 2021 will mark the 40th anniversary of our presence in Iraq. The Review has recently dedicated a special issue on protracted conflicts that shows the specific challenges that humanitarian organizations face in such conflicts. Looking back into the past helps to identify their root causes and dynamics, as well as the best ways to address their humanitarian consequences.

It is also a way to highlight successes and confront errors of the past. It helps to acknowledge failures, such as the inability of the ICRC to denounce the Holocaust during the Second World War. Moreover, looking back into the past shows the evolution of the “mentality” of our delegates, the evolution of our professionalism, and the institution’s attitude towards different issues: an old colonial vision of the world, gender-based discrimination, racism, the ways the ICRC has talked about women, etc. Our memory and history help us in understanding the positive and negative developments of the organization over the years and to better identify the goals we still must reach. It helps us avoid repeating the same mistakes and contributes to internal lessons learned exercises.

Institutional memory does not only serve the internal reflection of the organization; it also contributes to our interactions with the world. The experience the ICRC has accumulated over its more than 150 years of existence gives undeniable authority and attests expertise. This history and experience legitimize the ICRC’s action and contribute to humanitarian diplomacy, concrete dialogue with parties to the conflicts, relations with civil society, or public communication more broadly. By referring to past actions, we can show that the ICRC understands conflict dynamics, and, thanks to our experience, we can adapt our action.

An important component of the ICRC’s mandate has always been to promote and strengthen respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and its implementation in national law. The ICRC recalls to parties to conflict their obligations and actively participates in the development and interpretation of the law. The role of memory related to this activity can be illustrated through two striking examples.

The ICRC is currently updating the commentaries of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.  Part of this ongoing work, the commentary of the 3rd Geneva Convention was published in June 2020. This impressive research and intellectual endeavor reflect the implementation and practices of the Geneva Conventions in the field from 1949 to today. To achieve this ambitious goal, our lawyers rely a lot on ICRC archives and the memory they contain of these past armed conflicts.

In August 2020, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, two ICRC delegates, Fritz Bilfinger and Marcel Junod were among the first witnesses of the humanitarian consequences of the bombing and the human cost of nuclear weapons. This experience, and the memories of survivors, informed the ICRC’s position against these weapons, up to the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted in 2017, which will enter into force on 22 January 2021.

Why is memory important for people affected by war

Beyond the law, institutional memory is crucial to ensure accountability towards populations affected by armed conflicts and other stakeholders in the field. Parties to conflicts have a memory of the ICRC’s activities and know what we did – or didn’t do – in the past. Authorities, commanders, prison directors often perfectly know what was carried out and might criticize our colleagues in the field and remind them of possible failures or perception that the ICRC was not neutral or impartial. They could even try to politicize our actions with misleading accusations. Therefore, it is necessary for our colleagues in the field to rely on institutional memory and operational history of the context in which they are working, to remain consistent across decades, answer criticism, and strengthen their legitimacy.

Populations affected by war, “beneficiaries”, also often have in mind our failures and successes. Again, a knowledge of our past actions can provide explanations – not justifications – on our failures as well as concrete arguments to improve or strengthen acceptance towards them. Recalling what the ICRC did in the past for communities, detainees or separated families is one of the best ways to highlight the added-value of letting the ICRC operate.

Last but not least, the memory of the ICRC is one component, among others, of the broader memory of war. For individuals, it helps to understand what happened to them or their relatives. Our tracing archives have a big humanitarian value, as they help family members to get back into contact with each other. They “prove” that individuals have been victims of armed conflicts – tracing archives – and what they experienced – through ICRC reports for example. ICRC’s memory is equally important for the families of missing people because it shows that they are not forgotten, or that war leaves invisible but real marks.

At the collective level, our memory provides insights on how groups of people – communities, minorities, nations – suffered and how this suffering was/is acknowledged. It contributes to different narratives on the intersections between memory and war. The memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was built by different narratives, including that of the ICRC: the memory of its delegates.

Why is memory important for the Review

The International Review of the Red Cross

As a publicly available resource with an extensive archive, the International Review of the Red Cross itself can be seen as an external institutional memory, and has at times perhaps been intentionally shaped as such. In 2019, the Review celebrated its 150th anniversary. To celebrate, all past editions were made freely available online, making this memory more accessible to the general public.

Also in 2019, the Review published its edition on “Memory and war”. The issue includes reflections from Pierre Ryter on how the ICRC should situate itself in the historical context of Turkey, Iran and China, demonstrating how essential a sense of memory can be for successful humanitarian operations. As noted above, narratives of the past are linked with the present for humanitarian actors as much as for others, and present-day events can influence what is recalled and the relevance of a specific memory. Cedric Cotter demonstrates how history has been used to influence public perceptions.

Articles elsewhere in the Review’s catalogue also touch on the importance of memory for the ICRC as an institution, in particular the institutional memory of past conflicts. Indeed, the ICRC has observed the evolution of war itself over the course of its history. The way that it reacted to violations of international humanitarian law, of which it is a guardian, demonstrates how the organization learned and grew over time, building on the memory of past conflicts.

The importance of archives for dealing with the aftermath of armed conflicts, including in transitional justice and other mechanisms dealing with the past, is well-known. Recently, Valerie McKnight Hashemi unpacked the changes to the rules of accessing the ICRC archives, which constitute the institutional memory of the organization.

How the ICRC preserves memory

Since its inception, the ICRC has been keeping records of its activities. 19’000 linear meters of paper documents, 800’000 pictures, 6’000 films, 8’700 digital sound files, 25’000  books and hundreds of thousands of digital documents were gathered from 1863 to today. Its Archives keeps minutes of meetings, internal reports and reports submitted to parties to the conflicts, correspondence with various stakeholders, assessments of needs, internal analysis and exchanges, end of mission reports, and many other kinds of documents. The Archives division oversees the preservation of these treasures and provides guidance and expertise for the ongoing recording of information produced by ICRC staff all over the world. The Archives division engage in various activities that would definitely all deserve dedicated blogposts. The following lines are just very short summaries of some of these activities.

Archival documents constitute the strongest basis for our institutional memory and are used daily to inform our current activities and operations. The Archives division helps the ICRC’s governance and the field by sharing documentation and information that are crucial for decision-making. Moreover, the Archives division contributes to enhancing the ICRC’s knowledge by carrying out its own research and producing internal historical analysis and synthesis. Most of this research is conducted following requests from the operations and delegations. More than 400 synthesis documents have already been added to our internal database. This historical approach strengthens and complements memory held by resident colleagues and contributes to a better understanding of the ICRC’s work on the long-term.

The ICRC’s Public archives until 1975 are open to the public. Some collections, such as the audiovisual archives, are freely accessible online. The ICRC library gathers historical and contemporary references, books and articles on IHL and the history of the ICRC. All these resources are not only useful for historians and other researchers, they constitute an important resource for the memory of communities and countries affected by past armed conflicts. Archives eventually have a direct humanitarian value. Our tracing archives contain data about individuals collected by the ICRC and help families to get reunited with their beloved ones or to know what happened to their ancestors.

To conclude, like all memory the memory of the ICRC, through its archives, is always at risk of being manipulated or politicized. But it is crucial for the acknowledgement of human suffering caused by armed conflicts. Memory and history help us not to forget past atrocities and suffering, better understand the present, and keep faith in humanity. This is as crucial for the identity of a humanitarian organization like the ICRC as it is for those rebuilding their lives after armed conflict.