IRRC No. 910
Editorial: Memory: A new humanitarian frontier
Reading time 19 min read
At a time when the humanitarian debate seems firmly focused on the future – digital transformation, autonomous weapons, climate change, the race to innovate, and so on – devoting an entire issue of the Review to the concept of memory may seem out of place. But memory is an essential part of this debate for more than one reason. First, if conflict victims are to gain any relief from their trauma, the psychological impact of their experience can no longer be overlooked. Traumatic memories cause severe suffering among survivors of violence, those who have been uprooted, and the families of people who remain missing long after a conflict has ended. Humanitarian organizations are increasingly aware that they have an obligation – if not necessarily the means – to treat a form of suffering that has remained invisible or beyond their normal scope of work for far too long. Understanding memory, not only individual memory but also collective memory, may be key to preventing future cycles of violence. Historical humiliations and representations of the past give rise to murderous identities, feed most conflicts and lay the groundwork for incompatible visions of the future. The collective memory of societies is stored in their cultures and can be embodied in their landmarks and monuments. The emotion felt around the world in reaction to the accidental fire that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris demonstrates that memory – whether tangible or not – is worth safeguarding. Memory, in the form of history, is an oft-discussed topic in times of conflict: the desire to rewrite history; the desire to wipe groups of people, and even memories of those people, from the face of the earth; and the desire to destroy literary, artistic and architectural treasures. The memory worth protecting can also be digital, and it can be stolen, manipulated or damaged. There is also the memory stored in our neurons, which we may one day be able to modify or even erase thanks to advances in neuroscience.