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Belgium missed the opportunity of the Leopold II controversy

Cartoon depicting Belgian King Leopold II (in the middle) at the Berlin Conference of 1884, by engraver F. Maréchal

COMMENTARY /  Cameron Buckingham

The highwaters of the controversy about Belgium's colonial past in Africa, that dominated news at some point in 2020, have receded without Belgian grand institutions taking significant steps to redress the bad reputation. Belgian King Leopold II ordered horrible atrocities throughout the African continent but with the heaviest effect on the Democratic Republic of Congo. The genocide of over six million and slave labour of the Congolese people led by the late Belgian king resulted in immense wealth and can be directly linked to the success of Belgium in the modern-day. In the same way, it can be directly linked to the underdevelopment and continued struggle of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Currently, there has been an international movement to address the racial problems that plague the modern world. Regardless of the organization or political ideology, it is imperative to acknowledge these problems which stem directly from the unjust colonization, occupation, abuse, and slave trade throughout history. By actively not making any acknowledgment towards this issue, Belgium takes an ignorant stance which not only greatly affects its relations with central African countries, but an international stage speaks to its passive stance on Racism.

In 2019, a working group of experts from the United Nations issued a statement, composed of 74 key points of improvement the country should undertake, to the media with their conclusions of the effects of the colonial past within the country. The Working Group specifically condemned the Belgian government for their lack of engagement with the African minority in their population, as well as their lack of representation in federal institutions and media. The Working Group called on Belgian to improve their education resources so that they accurately portray what truly happened in Africa during colonial and Imperial times. Most importantly they urged Belgium to work on the recognition and social invisibility of people of African Descent, to make a clear and public apology to the African States and adopt a plan of action to confront racism within their country.

Domestic decolonisation

Within the country, the biggest reforms and measures to confront racism are taking place in the capital city of Brussels. One of the biggest changes is the Royal Museum for Central Africa: the museum has taken strides to remove elements of colonialism on display. However, the overall paternalistic attitude of the museum strains the relationship between Belgium and central African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. In light of recent events, A statue of Leopold II has been removed by the Antwerp museum after it was set on fire by protestors. There have been many statues defaced by protestors all over Belgium, all calling for his image to be removed from public space as seen in this article Statue of Leopold II, Belgian King Who Brutalized Congo, Is Removed in Antwerp. Simultaneously the government of Brussels has also made attempts to change the names of public spaces or infrastructure that have ties to colonization Most notably seen in a road tunnel,  Belgium seeks new name for road tunnel as it takes on colonial past. Brussels has also launched a project to decolonize public space within the city, this was in direct reaction to the BLM movement. This is the most significant action the Belgian state has taken in an attempt to reshape its public history. From road tunnels to parks, the city is making an effort to change. All of these are very pertinent changes as Brussels is the capital city and hopefully, the rest of the nation follows suit. It is equally important to note the work being carried out by the government institution, Inter-Federal Centre of Equal Opportunities (UNIA), which is a public institution that fights discrimination and works to promote equal opportunities for African descendants in Belgium, has acted tremendously to improve the life of African descendants in Belgium

Despite these advancements, many flaws must be addressed. The Royal Museum of Central Africa chooses certain displays to take down but maintains that history must be preserved. The problem with this is not the artifacts themselves, rather the information and context that turns their public history into a glorification of colonialism. The same can be said for the textbooks and educational resources propagated by the state. The history told in these state resources surrounding the Congolese genocide and the colonisation of Africa do not accurately portray the events and continues a passive ignorant mindset towards this part of their history. It furthers a paternalistic take on history that paints the Belgian leaders as people who were benevolent and brought civilization; When in reality they were brutal oppressors to native populations who exploited and abused central Africa in the name of wealth. While progress is being made, it is not nearly enough considering the global progress and the scale of impact Belgium's colonisation continues to have domestically and internationally.

African reparations

Countries such as Congo and Burundi still have effects today of the violence and loss from the Congolese genocide over a century ago. Their overall underdevelopment and indicators such as HDI, CPI, and GDP can be directly linked to the causes of Belgian colonization. Burundi has asked for $43 billion in reparations, while the Belgian government has yet to offer anything. Other African countries have sought reparations but Belgium has yet to pay any. This is significant because the lack of response and acknowledgment shown by the Belgian government especially during this racially charged period in time points to a blind spot of ignorance of the state. The farthest they have gone to show any sort of repatriation is by returning the tooth of an important political figure in Congo, this information can be accessed here: Belgium to return tooth of assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba to family | DW | 10.09.2020. This is dismal because it fails to acknowledge the ongoing effects of their colonists' period which paints horribly for their public history in the diplomatic sphere. The Belgian government has an opportunity to better utilize public history for the good of their image, as well as their growth as a country and relations with others however by not taking actions they are hurting themselves. Not only have the economies of these post-colony countries not been able to fully develop, the success of the Belgium economy that is rooted in colonisation creates a twisted paradox for these countries; Their resources and suffering were exploited by an Imperial power who continues to reap the benefits while they are left impoverished and impacted. In this sense, the exploitation of central Africa by Belgium continues today.

Conclusions and recommendations.

Belgium is missing the opportunity to take advantage of such a racially charged time to condemn their past behaviour, acknowledge their impact on Africa, and offer their support to countries they devastated. Belgium should uplift itself by creating a new public history, one that condemns their past. After 11 weeks of social media observation, the Belgium Ministry of Foreign affairs has not posted any content related to racial awareness or their former African colonies. One of the greatest tools today is social media, instead of only posting the glories of their country they should bring awareness to their past, on the biggest platform possible. However, it is not enough to bring light to this issue on social media. It is important to work with other governments, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, to amend and take necessary actions. Belgium needs to consider economic treaties with central Africa that would not only benefit both countries but make reparations for the African states. The goal of Belgian actions should be not only to acknowledge their colonial past but to actively make reparations and accurately acknowledge their atrocities and the impact they have had on central Africa, as well as the impact it's had on Belgian success as a country.

While Belgium ignores their colonial past, surrounding countries such as the Netherlands condemn and continue to actively work against racial cleavages in society. France, in a similar manner, continues to denounce the actions taken by Napoleon Bonaparte and even uses their history to emphasize their strengths not only in times of racial equality but also during coronavirus. With this in mind, it is time for Belgium to step up and meet or exceed the awareness of their neighbours and take actions to address their history and use it as a tool to improve.

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