Photograph of King Leopold II of Belgium as Garter Knight. Photo cropped. Credit: Unknown author - public domain
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Note to Colonisers: Relinquish the benefits of your ancestors’ crimes or pay reparations

Belgium’s Princess Esmeralda says the country should “apologize” for colonial atrocities but said: “We are not responsible for our ancestors.” As if she and her country are not directly benefiting from the crimes of her ancestors in the present day.

The half apologies and face value atonements that colonisers have performed in recent years to appear politically correct are exhausting at best. These murderous plundering countries somehow think that verbal apologies (always followed by qualifiers) and press statements can erase the atrocities of their past.

Belgium Princess Esmeralda’s proclamation that “We are not responsible for our ancestors” could not have come from a more inappropriate source. The infamous pictures of maimed Congolese people have illustrated some of the appalling abuses Africans endured through forced labor. It is not that her ancestor Leopold II killed approximately  ten million people in the Congo with famine or forced labour and imprisoned hundred more in a “human zoo.” It is not that rather than controlling the Congo as a colony, as other European powers did, Leopold made sure to privately own the region. It is not even about how international pressure forced Leopold to turn the Congo Free State over to Belgium because of the level of human rights crimes he perpetrated. It is that she, as a descendant of Leopold II has lived and is living a life facilitated by the immense wealth he plundered. As long as the Princess lives the benefits of colonialism by virtue of descent, she must also by virtue of descent shoulder responsibility for it. 

File:Nsala of Wala in Congo looks at the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter, 1904. Photo credit: Wiki commons/Alice Seeley Harris / John Hobbis Harris/Public domain.

Belgium royals have a very singular view of their heritage. In 2020 when Leopold II’s statues were toppled, Belgian Prince Laurent defended his ancestor and claimed the monarch could not be held responsible, as he “never went to Congo.” Laurent added, “I don’t see how he could have made people suffer on the ground.” Reported Politico.

On its website, the Belgian monarchy recognises that “excesses committed by the Europeans in Africa” cast a shadow on Leopold II’s “reputation,” but also notes that the palace in 1904 “set up an International Commission of Inquiry, which recognised the merits of the royal action in Congo, while pointing out abuses and shortcomings.”

Most European countries want to quietly benefit from hundreds of years of genocidal extractivism and the ongoing economic neo-colonialism but avoid acknowledgment and accountability for it. Belgium however, takes it a step further by also refusing the recognition of it, leaving the country highly polarised and racially divided. Activists in the country are making little headway in addressing the institutionalised racism in the country, and a federal action plan against racism — agreed to in 2001 — has never seen the light of day.

Leopold II (Bruxelles). Photo credit. Antonio Ponte/Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

And when the Belgian parliament took a step to set up a truth and reconciliation commission that would delve into Belgium’s colonial history and current race problem, the Flemish far-right came out against the idea, saying there is “no need for a committee that makes the Flemish people feel guilty.” 

According to the Human Rights Watch, the uncomfortable truths about Belgium’s colonial legacy continue to fuel present-day racism in the kingdom. Research has shown that people of African descent  continue to face systemic exclusion from education, employment, and opportunity.

It is understood therefore that Belgium’s colonial history is very much its present and until the country can recognise and be held accountable for its past, it will continue to perpetuate its history.

From Regrets to Reparations

62 years after independence Belgium has yet to take full responsibility for colonial crimes and atrocities and it is high time the county takes responsibility of the gross colonial human rights violations. In an article published by Human Rights Watch in 2020 titled “Belgium – Moving from Regrets to Reparations”, Carine Dikiefu Banona and Jean-Sébastien Sépulchre discuss Belgium’s colonial legacy, recommending what the country ought to do to address this highly problematic legacy. 

In the article, the HRW researchers say Belgian taxpayer should effectively contribute to any reparations coming from the Belgian government. “This can be balanced with the economic benefits derived from colonialism and on which Belgium continues to thrive”. “[V]ictims of past abuses should never be forgotten. To this end, monuments or museums, education, and a strong public awareness will help ensure there is no more whitewashing of history and avoid repetition of these offenses”.

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