The Importance of Memory: Unreliable, Precarious, and Crucial to Reconciliation

| October 24, 2018
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Campaign cloth from former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh (Photo Credit: Tommy Miles via Flickr).

Editors’ note: This is the first post in a series discussing current events in transitional justice and reconciliation. To read the second post, click here.


The last two months have seen an upsurge in news related to the pursuit of truth, reconciliation, and justice. Just a few days ago, The Gambia launched its own Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate human rights violations that occurred under former leader Yahya Jammeh from 1994 to 2017.1 In Asia, Japan decided to skip an international fleet review in South Korea after the latter asked for the removal of the Rising Sun flag, a symbol of 20th century Japanese colonialism, from Japanese warships.2 In Spain, the country remains divided over the parliament’s decision to remove Francisco Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen.3

This post will examine the crucial role that memory and collective histories play in shaping group and state identities and values. While our memories are imperfect and can shape states in unpredictable ways, they substantially inform our views and what we believe to be “truth.” Memory, therefore, is one of the best, yet underappreciated, tools that we have for post-conflict reconciliation.

It should not surprise us that there is a tension between memory and institutions such as the state. Memory is often characterized as fragile, malleable, and unreliable, while states and the proponents that create them, such as the law and their political systems, are usually codified, rigid, and sometimes resistant to change.4 Simultaneously, we assemble our imperfect memories to construct and reproduce collective histories, which we then pass down through multiple generations. The most enduring collective histories eventually define our identities and values as peoples, nations, and sometimes as states, and it is when these shared narratives become foundational that they are the most unyielding. This is not to say that histories and identities are absolutely permanent. Rather, because our memories are easily manipulated, we often fail to reflect upon where they may have faltered and where our collective histories fall short. Instead, we too often accept collective narratives as the truth, and then heavily rely on them to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Despite the important impact that collective histories have on shaping states and people, the role of memory is often not given enough consideration by scholars and practitioners. This is a mistake, and the three cases above demonstrate this significance. The Gambia presents the most obvious and perhaps most recognizable link for scholars between memory and state-building. After twenty-two years of state-sanctioned human rights violations such as “arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings to suppress dissent and independent media,”5 most of which were undocumented, the country is following in the footsteps of South Africa and Chile by establishing a truth commission. By collecting the individual memories and traumatic experiences of witnesses and victims, the TRRC aims to write a shared historical narrative of the Jammeh era, hoping that this narrative will unite the population, bring a sense of transparency and justice to victims, and allow the country to move forward under the auspice of “never again.”6

In contrast, South Korea and Japan demonstrate that many generations later, memories, especially those that are oppositional and traumatic, can continue to stoke conflict. This case is noteworthy as the disagreement brings few material benefits to either country. Moreover, as the actual victims of Japanese colonialism, particularly Korean comfort women, continue to age and pass away, their memories of that time period also fade. Nonetheless, the reproduced national narrative of Korean victimization and the anger that the Rising Sun flag triggers remain so vivid that these emotions override any other “practical” considerations that would favor moving on.

The Spanish case reminds us that well-established and functioning democratic states are not immune to such discussions, and that the suppression of memory does not always create social harmony. The debate between contrasting narratives of Franco and whether such memories should even be addressed has polarized the country. Over forty years after his death, a July 2018 poll found that fifty-four percent of respondents did not believe that now was the right time to address the issue of Franco’s exhumation.7 For some Spaniards, the conflict provokes an uneasiness to revisit their collective history and critique what the national understanding of “truth” really is. These concerns are valid, as the outcome of this dispute could rewrite Spain’s national history, identity, and values.

These three cases illustrate the crucial roles that memory and collective histories play in constantly shaping our identities and our institutions. While The Gambian and the South Korean-Japanese cases exemplify how memories can inform state-building and people’s perceptions of the world, Spain warns us that how we handle these memories is equally significant. Even though we know how flawed and malleable memories are, we must not ignore them or consider them as useless. Ultimately, memories enable us to function every day and without them, the human experience would be quite different. Particularly in times of hardship, when there is a dearth of recorded testimony or when written records fail to accurately convey the emotional experience, memories are the most important tool for truth, reconciliation, and justice that we have and thus should be given due attention.

Caroline Nguyen is a graduate student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, specializing in international security policy, international conflict resolution, and gender policy. Her area of interest lies at the intersection of gender and security, such as examining the gendered nature of conflict and post-conflict reconciliation.

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  1. Abdoulie John, “Gambia Launches Truth and Reconciliation Body to Confront Abuses Under Yahya Jammeh,” Time, October 16, 2018,
  2. Joyce Lee and Kiyoshi Takenaka, “Japan to skip naval event after South Korea protests over ‘Rising Sun’ flag,” Reuters, October 5, 2018,
  3. Meg Bernhard, “Spain is Still Divided over the Legacy of its Former Dictator. But Will Exhuming His Body Help the Country Heal?” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2018,
  4. Andreas Huyssen, “International Human Rights and the Politics of Memory: Limits and Challenges,” Criticism 53;4, Fall 2011, pp. 611.
  5. “Gambia: Events of 2017,” Human Rights Watch, 2017,
  6. John, “Gambia Launches Truth and Reconciliation Body to Confront Abuses Under Yahya Jammeh”.
  7. James McAuleyand and Pamela Rolfe, “Spain’s Plan to Exhume Franco Digs Up Memories of Unsettled Past,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2019,

Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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