Belgium’s King Sends Letter of Regret Over Colonial Past in Congo

BRUSSELS — King Philippe of Belgium on Tuesday expressed his “deepest regrets” for his nation’s brutal previous in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the primary public acknowledgment from a member of the Belgian royal household of the devastating human and monetary toll throughout eight a long time of colonization.

The king’s letter, issued on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, acknowledged the historic legacy and identified persevering with points of racism and discrimination, although it stopped quick of the apology that some, together with the United Nations, had requested for.

“I want to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of which is revived today by discriminations that are still too present in our societies,” the king wrote in the letter despatched to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The king would, he added, “continue to fight against all forms of racism.”

The letter, which was adopted by a press release from Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès of Belgium urging her nation to “look its past in the face,” is a component of the European nation’s newfound willingness to handle its vicious colonial previous.

In an tackle on Monday, Mr. Tshisekedi mentioned that King Philippe had deliberate to be on the Independence Day celebrations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, however that the coronavirus pandemic had intervened.

Mr. Tshisekedi mentioned he was making an attempt to foster a powerful relationship with the European nation. “I consider it necessary that our common history with Belgium and its people be told to our children in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in Belgium on the basis of scientific work carried out by historians of the two countries,” he mentioned.

“But the most important thing for the future is to build harmonious relations with Belgium,” he added, “because beyond the stigmas of history, the two peoples have been able to build a strong relationship.”

Belgium has lengthy grappled with its legacy in Africa, and protests in the United States towards the dying of George Floyd by the hands of the police have spurred a worldwide dialog about racism that has given a brand new depth to the difficulty.

In addition to the remarks from the king and prime minister, statues of King Leopold II, whose violent private rule of what was then the Congo Free State, have been removed from city squares and government buildings across Belgium. Leopold, an ancestor of King Philippe, extracted wealth from the resource-rich territory in central Africa whereas inflicting immense hurt that led to the deaths of tens of millions.

Jean-Luc Crucke, the finance minister for Wallonia, one of Belgium’s three areas, mentioned on Tuesday {that a} parliamentary fee would start work in September to scrutinize the nation’s colonial previous. The panel would enable Belgium to “continue this path” laid out by the king’s letter, which he known as “heavy with meaning and more than symbolic.”

Ms. Wilmès, talking at a commemoration occasion in Brussels later in the day, acknowledged the troubled historical past with the Democratic Republic of Congo, “a past imprinted with inequalities and violence against the Congolese.”

Some activists mentioned that the king’s letter didn’t go far sufficient as a result of it didn’t include an apology and, as a result of he isn’t a member of the federal government, it didn’t formally mirror the views of the Belgian state, which took management of the huge land after King Leopold II and continued colonial exploitation.

Jean Omasombo, a political scientist on the University of Kinshasa and a researcher on the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, mentioned that the Belgian state had by no means acknowledged its duty for colonial atrocities.

“This letter is a first step,” Mr. Omasombo mentioned. “But it is not sufficient.” Mr. Omasombo added that he welcomed the concept of the parliamentary fee however that it shouldn’t be “a distraction” from accountability.

Until 1908, Leopold ran the Congo Free State as a enterprise for private revenue. With a military that included Congolese orphans, the king and his brokers drained the land of assets, after which forcibly moved, separated and enslaved households, earlier than being compelled to show management of the world again over to the Belgian state. Congo achieved independence from Belgium in 1960, however the next a long time had been scarred by civil war.

Almost 10,000 individuals demonstrated in Brussels towards racism this month in the wake of the killing of Mr. Floyd. Some protesters climbed on a statue of King Leopold II and flew a large flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, chanting “murderer” and “reparations,” repeating a requirement for the Belgian state to pay damages to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Belgium’s grappling with its colonial heritage has lengthy been fraught. For a long time, Belgians had been taught that the nation had introduced “civilization” to the African continent, and a few have defended King Leopold II as a foundational determine. Streets and parks are named after him, and statues of the king will be discovered all through the nation.

As in so many European nations, racial discrimination is an ongoing challenge in Belgium. Recently, a black member of the European Parliament mentioned she had been mistreated by the police in Brussels.

The member, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a 71-year-old Green celebration consultant from Germany, filed a authorized criticism this month towards Belgian officers who she mentioned had pushed her towards a wall and brought away her purse and her cell phone as she was making an attempt to movie what she described because the police “harassing” younger black males at a Brussels practice station.

According to Ms. Herzberger-Fofana, cops didn’t imagine her when she mentioned she was a member of the Parliament, regardless of her identification and a diplomatic passport.

“I consider this as a racist and discriminatory act,” she mentioned in a current speech on the European Parliament. “We can’t ignore this police violence.”

The police declare she insulted officers and have filed their very own criticism. The public prosecutor is investigating the episode.

Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Megan Specia from London. Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.

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