Belgian King Philip sends ‘remorse’ to Congo for Leopold II’s atrocities

On the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, King Philip of Belgium wrote a letter to President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in which he admitted that “to further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk about our long common history in all truth and serenity. “

The recognition is a watershed moment in Belgium’s postcolonial history, and a rare admission of royalist imperialist sins, even if Philippe did not go so far as to formally apologize.

It also marks a significant victory for anti-racism protesters who have been demanding that Belgium address its colonial past and remove public monuments to Leopold II.

An unlikely leader of the protests is a 14-year-old boy named Noah, whose petition to tear down Brussels’ monuments has been signed tens of thousands of times.

“Our history is made of common achievements, but it has also experienced painful episodes. During the period of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory,” wrote the King.

Philippe is a distant nephew of Leopold II, who owned what was then called the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 and brutally ruled his people, exploiting their work and committing atrocities against them. Historians estimate that under Leopold’s misrule, as many as 10 million people died.

“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” the letter added, referring to the subsequent 52 years of Belgian state rule until the independence of the Congo and the formation of the DRC.

“I would like to express my deepest regret for these past hurts, the pain of which is now reviving with discrimination that is still too present in our societies,” he added.

A statue on the grounds of the Royal Belgian Museum for Central Africa, with a bust of King Leopold II, was covered in red paint and crowned with a traffic cone.

‘Reflection process’

A re-evaluation of Belgium’s colonial legacy came about in the wake of the Black Lives Matter global protests, with several statues representing the former leader having been toppled in the country. Earlier this month, Belgium’s parliament approved an investigation into its colonial history.

“I appreciate the process of reflection that our parliament has begun, so that we can finally make peace with our memories,” wrote the King. But he did not take the opportunity to apologize to the DRC for the acts committed by Leopold II or by the Belgian governments until 1960.

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo was finally established on June 30, 1960, a date marked by a historic speech by independence leader Patrice Lumumba in which he described eight decades of subjugation that were “filled with tears, fire and blood.”

Without an immediate visa offer, very few Congolese came to Belgium until recently, so although the country became home to people from various European nations, colonial sentiments towards African cultures have never been fully shaken in the country. .

That prevailing attitude has led to a series of high-profile black-faced incidents in the country, including top politicians, and a general lack of education about Belgium’s imperialist past. Last year, a group of UN human rights experts visited several cities in Belgium and found “clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in Belgian institutions.”

A statue of Leopold II in Antwerp was removed after Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world earlier this month, while another in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels has been repeatedly covered in anti-racist graffiti.

Els Van Hoof, a Belgian MP who heads the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, says the parliamentary inquiry may address the question of what to do with the statues of Leopold II, though the exact scope of the work has yet to be determined. .

CNN’s Stephanie Halasz, Scott McLean and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this report.


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