EuropeLaw & JusticeBelgium Begins to Confront Its Brutal Colonial Past in Congo

Black Lives Matter protests in France and the United Kingdom have intensified the domestic debate over their countries’ past colonialism and present racism. Demonstrators, numbering in the thousands, have toppled memorials to historical figures associated with the slave trade and with colonial empires. In June, the protests spread to Belgium, with a crowd of about 10,000 in Brussels demonstrating against racism. On June 30, Belgian King Philippe, in a letter to Felix Tshisekedi, president of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), expressed his “regret” over his country’s exploitation of DRC.

King Philippe stopped short of an apology. Under Belgium’s system of governance, an apology would be deemed a “political act” and could be done only by parliament. However, in a statement following the King’s letter, the new prime minister, Sophie Wilmes, urged Belgians “to look its past in the face.”

For his part, President Tshisekedi, in remarks commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of DRC’s independence, called for closer ties between the two countries, but based on a common understanding of history: “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.” Unlike his predecessors, King Philippe has never visited Congo. He had expected to attend the commemoration, but COVID-19 precluded travel.

The Belgians and other Europeans at the 1885 Congress of Berlin have much to regret. The Congress, in effect, allocated Congo to King Philippe’s ancestor, Belgian King Leopold II, who began ruling Congo as his personal property that year, without reference to the constitutional government in Brussels. His harsh labor policies were designed to maximize the production of natural rubber. His brutality and waves of lethal disease led to the deaths of up to 20 million people (though some estimates are far lower). His numerous, well-documented atrocities led to Europe-wide pressure to end his personal regime, and in 1908, Belgium annexed Congo, and thereafter ruled it as a colony.

Nevertheless, Leopold II still has admirers in Belgium, especially among the older generation. He had long been seen as having brought “civilization” to Africa. A parliamentary vote on a formal apology to the DRC might prove controversial for the country’s fragile politics.


John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He is the coauthor, along with Matthew Page, of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know.  He served twice in Nigeria, as political counselor from 1988 to 1990, and as ambassador from 2004 to 2007. This article first appeared in Council on Foreign Relation “African in Transition.” series.

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