Colonial pastThe House must condemn the colonial regime and apologize. This is one of the recommendations put forward by the chairman of the parliamentary commission which spent two and a half years studying Belgium’s colonial past, Wouter De Vriendt (Ecolo-Groen).

This commission was set up in the wake of the “Black Lives Matters” movement and racist incidents that occurred during the summer of 2020. It conducted nearly 300 hearings in Belgium, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the three countries that experienced the Belgian colonial regime. His mandate expires at the end of the year. On Tuesday, the President presented his proposals for conclusions and recommendations, the result of a report provided by three experts, consultations with political groups and contributions that some of them have given him.

Acknowledgement

The issue of acknowledgment and apology is central. “The Chamber condemns the colonial regime as a system based on exploitation and domination, which was based on a relationship of unjustifiable inequality characterized by paternalism, discrimination and racism and which gave rise to humiliations”, says one of the recommendations made by the president.

“The Chamber apologizes to the Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian peoples for the colonial domination and exploitation, the violence and atrocities, the individual and collective violations of human rights during this period, as well as the racism and discrimination that have plagued them. accompanied”, says another recommendation which asks the “executive power to take similar steps in terms of symbolic reparations”.

Wouter De Vriendt.

Wouter De Vriendt. © BELGA

“No legal liability”

This recognition “does not imply any legal responsibility and cannot therefore give rise to financial compensation”, specifies the text.

In this spirit, it is also proposed to devote a year to reflection on the colonial past, to establish a day of commemoration of this part of Belgian history and to erect a monument relating to this past. Another monument could be erected in tribute to the first Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, assassinated in 1961, and to Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito who perished alongside him. As for statues and other signs from the colonial period in public spaces, the recommendations are cautious: a case-by-case approach is advocated, including at least a contextualization or counterpoint. Some more targeted proposals are put forward, such as creating a monument to the victims of human zoos or renaming the order of Leopold II.

The proposals emphasize the importance of education and research work. The committee devoted part of its hearings to the question of archives. A call is made to open these, including those of private companies, religious congregations and the Royal Palace. One point also targets the death of Prince Rwasagore, the first Burundian Prime Minister, also assassinated: it is recommended to create a panel of Belgian and Burundian historians to shed light on this affair.

Racism

The question of racism is mentioned, in particular that of a national action plan against racism but also of work on folklore and the evolution of certain manifestations in order to empty them of “any racist representation”.

This is not the first time that a parliamentary commission has looked into Belgium’s colonial past. Over the past 20 years, parliament has considered the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the situation of mestizos which was the subject of a resolution under the previous legislature. The president of the commission proposes to continue the work and targets in particular the half-breeds left in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Unique in Europe

The work carried out by the Chamber on this point is unique in Europe, recalled the President, and other countries which have built a colonial empire are watching it with interest. The proposed report and recommendations have been sent to the members of the commission which will meet next Monday. It will be a question of finding a sufficient consensus around the report and the recommendations on a subject marked by deep divisions. The task looks daunting. The MR thus let it be known that he stood by the “regrets” expressed by the King on the occasion of his trip to the DR Congo.

The president hopes to garner the “widest possible support”. He called on political parties to go beyond the majority-opposition relationship and avoid using this issue “to profile themselves”. “It will depend on everyone’s political will to surpass themselves. In this case, an agreement will be possible”, believes Mr. De Vriendt. In his eyes, the “historical responsibility of Belgium” is at stake.

It is too much for the MR and insufficient for the PS; a good compromise according to the Greens

The PS and the MR reacted on Tuesday in a contrasting way to the proposed recommendations of the president of the parliamentary commission which looks into Belgium’s colonial past. The first does not want to confine himself to an apology from parliament and believes that we must go further in the repair work, the second, on the other hand, intends not to go beyond the “regrets” expressed by King Philippe during his trip to the DR Congo. .

“There is no question for us of having a cheap agreement on such a fundamental subject which concerns populations who are victims of systemic violence. We have to be up to it: Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are watching us. If the excuses only come from parliament, that does not suit us at all. From the lengthy work of hearings that we have carried out, it appears that these apologies must come not only from parliament but also from the government, the head of state and all the institutions that collaborated with the colonial regime, such as the Church or the private companies”, explained the vice-president of the commission, Christophe Lacroix (PS).

The socialists still support the project of a foundation which could be fed, for example, by the companies which profited from the colonial regime and which would pursue research on this period of history, carry out education and awareness-raising operations, work to reconciliation, etc., like what Germany did for forced labor under the Nazi regime. Mr. De Vriendt’s proposal refers to a “trust fund” that the churches would set up to support reparation projects.

Both the Socialists and the Liberals consider the presentation by President Wouter De Vriendt (Ecolo-Groen) of his proposed recommendations on Tuesday to be premature.

“There are still many points of fundamental disagreement that we still have to settle, so it seems premature to us to make public a document that does not reflect the consensus of all the members of the majority. The discussions were indeed supposed to continue this week in order to conclude next Monday”, underlined the leaders of the Open Vld and MR groups, Maggie De Block and Benoit Piedboeuf.

The two liberal parties stand by the “regrets” expressed by the Head of State and plead for the Chamber to also express its regrets for the suffering inflicted. “There is no ambiguity, the King reminded us, the colonial regime as such was based on exploitation and domination, an unequal relationship, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism. We are fully in line with this process of recognition”, they underlined.

Ecolo-Groen, on the other hand, welcomes the proposed report, which it qualifies as a “good compromise”. “Can a democracy like ours continue to skilfully avoid acknowledging its responsibility for one of the most blatant expressions of human rights violation, namely colonization? The answer is obvious. It is true that the Belgians of today are not responsible for the actions of our predecessors, but we have inherited the colonial period and we must manage it fairly and responsibly. If there is no individual culpability of the Belgians, there is certainly a collective responsibility of the Belgian State, the Church and the colonial companies”, underlined Guillaume Defossé.

Environmentalists also call for looking to the future. “We must work on the current consequences of colonization. Those which make that today, people of African descent face a very specific systemic racism. This link between racism and colonialism has already been recognized by the United Nations but also the European Parliament. The fight against this systemic racism must no longer be a posture, it must be political. The National Action Plan against Racism to which we committed ourselves in 2001 must be completed and implemented without delay,” he added.

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