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Belgium still struggling with its colonial ghosts

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Belgium’s attempts to confront its brutal colonial past keep running into problems.

After two years of work by a parliamentary commission, a report was drawn up earlier this year, along with political recommendations on the next steps the country should take. But the full report, as well as its recommendations, has not been released to the public.

The point of contention? Apologizing to the former colonies, including the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

It comes against a backdrop of a looming national election, and attempts to foster awareness of and contextualize — but not remove — the numerous colonial monuments still found all across Brussels and elsewhere.

In the latest example of this effort, the authorities this month unveiled an art installation that aims to contextualize the colonial monument in Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire glorifying Belgian colonizers who conquered Congo. The monument has frequently been a target of vandalism in recent years. Visitors to the park can now read the contextualization on panels in front of the monument and access additional information through a QR code.

Yet a formal apology for Belgium’s atrocities during the era of Leopold II remains a big no-no for the country.

The parliamentary commission came into existence in June 2020 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and was expected to come up with recommendations on how Belgium should best deal with the legacy of colonialism as well as racism and discrimination in the country. On the commission were MPs from across the political spectrum.

It was problematic from the get-go.

“Some of the members of the commission were not in favor of its existence … when it’s so political, it’s risky,” said historian Valérie Rosoux, who worked on the report.

Belgium’s King Philippe broke the royal family’s silence on the subject in 2020 when he expressed “profound regret” for the wounds of the colonial past and the “acts of violence and cruelty” committed under Belgian occupation on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence.

Several years later, the notion of a formal apology remains just as contentious and ultimately was the reason why the commission failed.

“Why should all Belgians today apologize?” asked Flemish liberal Maggie De Block in December 2022 when the commission finished its work.

Tensions flared up again earlier this year after the lawmakers in favor of an apology attempted to bring the publication of the report back onto the agenda.

But nothing has changed: MPs who sat on the commission from the French-speaking liberals (MR), the Flemish far right (Vlaams Belang), and the Flemish nationalists (N-VA) were opposed to the publication of the report.

A non-existent commission

“What happened was that the commission was dissolved after we failed to agree on recommendations. We cannot publish the report of a commission that does not exist anymore,” MR member of parliament Benoit Piedboeuf told Le Soir.

But according to historian Sarah Van Beurden, who participated in writing the preliminary report, the parliament is hiding behind a technicality. “If there is enough political will, they can find a way to make it happen,” she said, adding that not publishing the report represents “a deep political failure.”

“I almost don’t have words for it. I think it’s deeply politically irresponsible, but also sort of irresponsible on the human level … it’s deeply offensive on a human level to those who devoted their time to testimonies and hearings,” said Van Beurden.

Geneviève Kaninda, coordinator of Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte contre les Discriminations, a movement aiming to decolonize society, said publishing the report was a question of decency. “Colonization was a really horrible story,” she said. “It’s not about decolonization anymore, it’s about how a couple of political parties can hold a parliament hostage.”

Some 200 historians and several politicians have now signed a petition asking the parliament to publish the report.

“This was the first time that the parliament of the ancient colonial power was coping with its political past, which is a traumatic and dark past, the historical importance is quite obvious … the researchers all over the world should be able to consult the results,” said Wouter De Vriendt, a Green MP who chaired the commission.

A detailed report

The almost 700-page report, shared with POLITICO, builds on testimonials from about 300 academics, diplomats and witnesses, as well as upon visits to former colonies. Parts of the report have been published on the parliament’s website, but the documents are not easy to find.

“I have no issue with publication of the report, what I am against is the publication of the political recommendations,” Thomas Roggeman, of the N-VA, told POLITICO, adding that the commission took a different turn over the years. “In the end, it was just about getting votes in the African communities, nothing to do with historical past.”

In 2022, those working on the report failed to find consensus on the notion of apologies to be made to the former colonies. Some claimed this would have led to financial reparations, even though one of the political recommendations states that the “recognition of Belgium’s role is sincere and necessary. It does not, however, imply any legal liability, and therefore cannot give rise to any financial reparation.”

Other recommendations — there are 128 in total — include the establishment of a Remembrance Day, the creation of a knowledge center, and facilitating easier visa procedures for scholars in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.

“There were also practical things that could change the way in which the colonial past is represented in the public sphere, how the colonial collections are handled or change the way Congolese historians struggle to get visas to access archival collections in Belgium … and they just swept all of it off the table,” said Van Beurden.

‘Belgo-Belge issue

It’s not the first time Belgium has set up a commission aimed at dealing with its colonial past. One of the most notable was the Lumumba Commission, which concluded that  Belgium was “morally responsible” for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo.

“It was a Belgian exercise. It’s what the Congolese like to call the Belgo-Belge issue,” said Van Beurden. “The Belgians are going to discuss this amongst themselves and then they’re going to make judgments about the colonial past that concern all of us. So there was skepticism from the beginning about the process.”

Nyanchama Okemwa, chair of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), who has been living in Belgium for 30 years, was also dubious about the idea from the start.

“I was very sure it was not going to work, even when it started. Because how do you start when you have not yet even understood that your laws are obsolete? And that your policy is anchored upon obsolete ways of thinking,” she said.

According to Okemwa, the colonial mentality is embedded in Belgium and it will take many years to change that.

“Belgium is now very diverse, but this diversity is not reflected in the law,” she said, adding that compared to 30 years ago, the country has changed.

“I would not be doing this job for 30 years if I didn’t see certain changes. I’m very patient; the changes are slow, but they are happening. We cannot expect a problem of 500 years to change overnight.”

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