Regrets, Apologies and Repair for Belgium’s Colonial Harms

3 December 2020 by Valerie Arnould

Former colonial countries appear increasingly willing to engage in processes akin to transitional justice in order to confront the legacies of their colonial past. In this blog post, Valerie Arnould discusses recent initiatives in Belgium meant to address and repair its colonial harms in Central Africa and their potential for bringing about genuine societal transformation.

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s independence from Belgian colonial rule, King Philippe expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds from the past” in a letter addressed to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. This has been hailed as a historic moment, as it is the first time that the Belgian Royal House has publicly acknowledged the devastating legacies of the colonial rule under King Leopold II (1885-1908) and successive Belgian governments (1908-1960). While this could signal a genuine willingness to transform Belgium’s relations with its colonial past, this will only happen if the country fully confronts and redresses past harms.

The statement occurred against a background of growing mobilisation and demands for a proper reckoning with this legacy. The reopening of the Africa Museum in December 2018 revived discussions about the need for restitution of African artifacts while civil society movements like the Collectif Mémoire coloniale et lutte contre les discriminations and Change ASBL have been campaigning for a decolonisation of public spaces -which led, for instance, to the inauguration of a Lumumba Square in Brussels in June 2018- and to denounce the pernicious persistence of colonialist and racist ideas within Belgian society. Belgium has also faced external pressure to contend with its colonial past. In early 2019, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent called on Belgium to issue apologies for the harms caused during its colonial rule, to remove statues and monuments honoring Leopold II, and to step up efforts to tackle racism and xenophobia. The recent worldwide reverberations of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in the USA thus constitute the background but not the trigger for King Philippe’s expression of regret.

While King Philippe’s statement acts as a positive sign of a willingness for change, it is not enough. After all, regrets are not apologies. So far, official apologies by Belgium have been haphazard and contained. In 2002, the government apologised for Belgium’s involvement in the assassination of former Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and in April 2019, the Belgian government apologised for the forced removal of métis children (those were children born from mixed-race informal unions) during the colonial era. While these are important gestures, they do not amount to full-fledged recognition of the harmful effects and the criminal and exploitative nature of the colonial system in se nor to an acceptance of responsibility for the ongoing harm suffered by the descendants of colonised peoples. These apologies also have not done enough to fundamentally change the dogged persistence of misrepresentations of Belgium’s colonial past within society and school curricula. Yet demands for a deeper acknowledgment of the long-term impacts of colonisation and for reparations remain strong, as evidenced by the recent claim brought by former métis children against the Belgian state on charges of crimes against humanity. So, where to from here?

On 17 June 2020, the Belgian parliament agreed to the principle of setting up a ‘truth commission’ that will investigate Belgium’s colonial past (a proposal for such an investigative commission was already submitted by some MPs in 2017). While the exact contour of this commission remains to be determined, it is meant to look at Belgium’s colonial actions in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi with the aim of clarifying the structural impact these actions have had on the countries and their people, and to make suggestions on how this should be addressed. Belgium thus follows in the footsteps of countries such as Canada, Australia, Denmark, Finland, and Norway in setting up truth and reconciliation commissions to deal with their colonial past. However, this would be the first instance of such a broad-mandated truth commission being set up in a non-settler colonialism context.

Some have argued there is no need for a truth-telling exercise since there is already a wealth of historical knowledge available on the colonial past – albeit without there being a general consensus on the interpretation of this past. Nonetheless, Belgium’s planned truth commission could play an important role in dealing with the past. Since the problem is not so much the lack of available knowledge as much as a lack of societal awareness about the colonial past, the commission’s work could include a public-facing component. While a truth commission on the South African model, which involved extensive public hearings throughout the country with victim and perpetrator testimonials, is neither feasible nor appropriate for the Belgian context, the exercise should not limit itself to a traditional behind-closed-doors expert or parliamentary commission. It will be essential to ensure that both during and after its operations, the commission render its work publicly visible and encourages societal engagement with its work and findings – and possibly even include some testimonies or public sessions where this is relevant. In addition, the commission will need to involve Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians in its work, engage with their countries’ memories of colonialism and give voice to their people’s social and political struggles against this system. Former colonised peoples need to be acknowledged not merely as victims of violence and exploitation but also as active agents of change and as partners in a dialogue – the aim should be to encourage their ‘redignification’.

Furthermore, as currently set out by the parliament, the mandate given to the commission to look into the structural impact of Belgian colonialism means that it has the potential to be about more than just ‘historical truth-telling’. Its aim will not be so much to produce (yet another) historical account of the colonial past but to zoom in on the detrimental effects and lasting harm caused by colonialism and making recommendations about how to address these. For these reasons, it will be important that the commission’s composition is multidisciplinary and does not only consist of historians.

A key issue of contention is likely to be the question of reparations. There has been much hesitancy by former colonial countries to engage with the issue of reparations for slavery and/or colonialism despite strong arguments about the existence of a moral, legal and collective responsibility for states to provide redress for past colonial wrongs. It has often taken litigation by survivors to get states to confront these demands. In 2013, the UK agreed to pay £19.9 million in compensation to over 5,000 claimants who had suffered abuse during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s and to erect a memorial site in their memory. Following litigation by Herero and Nama peoples in US courts, in 2015 Germany finally recognised the Nama Herero Wars as genocide and initiated reparations negotiations with the Namibian government. These have so far not produced an agreement, which led Herero and Nama representatives to file a new lawsuit in 2017. In turn, settler colonialism countries like Canada and Australia have also embarked on programmes of reparation to indigenous people.

A challenge when it comes to reparations for colonial harms is defining who is entitled to them. A central principle should be that reparations are not owed to the Congolese/ Rwandan/Burundian state but to the Congolese/Rwandan/Burundian people. Particularly where post-colonial states have a poor track-record in protecting their populations from state violence and where state-level corruption is endemic, state-to-state reparations negotiations are not the path to follow. It is essential to ensure that reparations will directly benefit the people, not the state. Another important challenge, is the collective nature of colonial injustices (though there are of course also instances of individual injustices, such as the case of the métis children or the forced labourers used for the construction of the Matadi-Kinshasa railway line) that generate extremely high number of potential beneficiaries. Because of this, individual financial reparations are often unrealistic.

However, there is great diversity in the forms that reparations can take. Reparations for colonial harms could include the creation of a special fund to support economic and sociocultural projects to redress racism and discrimination towards Congolese/Rwandan/Burundian descendants in Belgium; supporting the establishment of education projects and exhibits about the colonial past and the contributions that colonised people have made to Belgian society; revising educational curricula in schools and universities; funding the establishment of memorials to commemorate the victims of colonisation and those African soldiers who fought for Belgium in WWI and WWII; official apologies; funding bilateral projects for managing the restitution of cultural artefacts; providing funds for Africa-based historical research; funding educational scholarships; removing the most egregious memorials/statues that celebrate the colonial past, renaming streets after African heroes or intellectual and cultural figures etc. The truth commission could play an important role here, firstly by determining what state crimes took place that have a continued impact on remaining victims and their descendants (which would set out the contours of what crimes need to be repaired) and secondly, by engaging in broad-based consultations with communities to assess what kind of reparations would be meaningful to them.

King Philippe’s letter and parliament’s consideration of a ‘truth commission’ could mark a turn in how the country reckons with its colonial past and build the basis for a genuine transformation of its conflictual relations with its former colonies. But only on the condition that it does not treat these truth-telling and apologies as expedient measures to close the door on the past, and instead views them as a means to commit to a profound societal transformation.

Valerie Arnould

is Senior Research Fellow with the Africa Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations and a research associate at the Leuven Institute of Criminology, University of Leuven. Her research focuses on justice and (in)security dynamics in Central Africa, the politics and impact of transitional justice, and peacebuilding. She is the editor in chief of the Leuven Transitional Justice Blog.



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