Special focus « Hour of reckoning for colonial crimes »

Belgian colonial past: Commission fails on apology to victims

The commission on Belgium's colonial past was a pioneer in Europe, but it collapsed at the finish line at the end of December, stripped of all its well formulated recommendations. After two and a half years of looking into the past, there was no political consensus to apologize to the victims.

Belgian Colonial Past - Black and white photo in which King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium are sitting on armchairs carried by Congolese in traditional dress.King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium take a walk on their palanquins during a visit to Kisangani, north-eastern Congo, in 1970 © Belga / AFP
3 min 33Approximate reading time

At the end of December, the chairman of the parliamentary commission charged with shedding light on Belgium's colonial past, Flemish ecologist Wouter De Vriendt, announced that an official apology to the victims of colonialism had not been approved. This was the strongest recommendation to emerge from the work of this pioneering parliamentary commission set up in June 2020, whose aim was to confront the Belgian colonial past, to repair and compensate.

Over more than two years, the parliamentarians heard nearly 300 people (mainly experts in history, law and socio-politics, but also representatives of the diasporas) and visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. They tried to clarify the last grey areas of the colonial period, in order to ultimately formulate recommendations for repair and reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine reparation starting without an official apology. But that is where the commission stumbled, failing to secure a majority vote as several commissioners walked out of the session. The failure is all the more resounding given the great ambitions of this inquiry, which concluded that, without question, many crimes were committed during colonization. The Belgian failure also came as the Dutch government acknowledged its responsibility for its slave-owning past, apologised and announced the creation of a reparation fund.

Liberal parties backtrack

What happened? Everything changed on December 19 when it came to a vote on the 128 recommendations and the liberal party commissioners walked out of the session. The so-called "Vivaldi", the federal coalition (consisting of the PS, Vooruit, CD&V, Open VLD, MR, Ecolo and Groen parties) was divided on the main recommendation, the apology. The proposed apology read as follows: "The House apologizes to the Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian peoples for the colonial domination and exploitation, the violence and atrocities, the individual and collective human rights violations during this period, as well as the racism and discrimination that accompanied them.”

The liberals - MR and Open VLD - were clearly opposed. The Flemish Christian Democrats - the CD&V - preferred to stick to the "regrets" expressed by the Belgian King in June 2022. These parties considered the risk too high of having to pay huge financial reparations

"We had a consensus on an apology, and then suddenly the conservative forces backed down," Christophe Lacroix, a Socialist Party (PS) MP and member of the commission, told the press. According to its chairman, Wouter De Vriendt (Groen - Green party), pressure was exerted from outside. "It was openly said within the majority that there were contacts and pressure from several actors, including party presidents, and also from the Royal Palace," he said the day after the voting session. The liberal parties responded that their position on an official apology was clear from the start, and the Royal Palace denied any pressure.

In addition to the recommendation for an apology, all other recommendations were immediately dismissed. These include the establishment of a remembrance day, the erection of a monument to the victims of "human zoos", the creation of a knowledge centre, the granting of scholarships, the declassification of archives, a new name for the Order of Leopold II, and the development of a national action plan against racism.

Wouter De Vriendt, chairman of the parliamentary commission on Belgium's colonial past, speaks at a microphone.
Wouter De Vriendt, chairman of the parliamentary committee that spent two and a half years examining Belgium's colonial past. © Belga

Commission's mandate not renewed

Several socialist and environmentalist members of the commission, who were in favour of Belgium making an apology, tried to put things back on track by calling for the work to continue. In a last ditch effort on December 28, Wouter De Vriendt proposed voting on the recommendations without the word "apology" in them. The Socialist deputies opposed this. Consensus was not possible on this "parliamentary resolution" that included most of the recommendations. And on December 31, the commission's mandate, which had come to an end, was not renewed.

On the other hand, three members of the Socialist Party group in parliament, Christophe Lacroix, Jean-Marc Delizée and Malik Ben Achour, on December 23 launched the idea in the Moustique newspaper of creating a reparations fund. "Our proposal is part of the aim to write a common future allowing a collective consciousness of Belgian colonization. As well as the work already done by Secretary of State Thomas Dermine on restitution [...], this fund would be financed in particular by companies that got rich on the exploitation of the people and resources of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. Even if more research is still needed on certain subjects and on the precise responsibility of certain actors, it is clear that the accumulation of capital by large companies was the absolute priority of the colonial institution.”

"We will not stop at the failure of the parliamentary commission,” they write. “All this work has brought to light facts, a truth which was still too little known. We want to continue working also out of respect for these women and men who came and spent hours dissecting history with us. We want to continue to work with the associations that have been working for more than 10 years for a clear recognition that structural racism is one of the consequences of colonization.”

To date, the Belgian State has not said how it plans to follow up on the recommendations of this commission, which was created in 2020 a few months after the murder of George Floyd in the United States.