Belgium’s King Philippe sends ‘regrets’ to Congo for Leopold II atrocities

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On the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence, King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in which he admitted that “to further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk about our long common history in all truth and serenity.”

The acknowledgment is a watershed moment in Belgium’s post-colonial history, and a rare admission of imperialist sins from the royal family — even if Philippe did not go as far as formally apologizing.

It also marks a significant victory for the anti-racism protesters who have been demanding Belgium address its colonial past and remove public monuments to Leopold II.

One unlikely leader of the demonstrations is a 14-year-old called Noah, whose petition to take down Brussels’ monuments has been signed tens of thousands of times.

“Our history is made of common achievements but has also experienced painful episodes. During the period of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory,” the King wrote.

Philippe is a distant nephew of Leopold II, who owned what was then called Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 and ruled its people brutally, exploiting their labor and committing atrocities against them. Historians estimate that under Leopold’s misrule, as many as 10 million people died.

“The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” the letter adds, referring to the subsequent 52 years of rule by the Belgian state until Congo’s independence and the formation of the DRC.

“I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies,” he added.

A statue in the grounds of Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa, featuring a bust of King Leopold II, was covered in red paint and topped with a traffic cone "dunce's cap."

‘Process of reflection’

A reassessment of Belgium’s colonial legacy has taken place in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests, with several statues depicting the former leader have been taken down in the country. Earlier this month, Belgium’s parliament approved an inquiry into its colonial history.

“I welcome the process of reflection that our parliament has started, so that we may finally make peace with our memories,” the King wrote. But he did not take the opportunity to apologize to the DRC for the acts committed by Leopold II or by Belgian governments until 1960.

Britain's imperialist monuments face a bitter reckoning amid Black Lives Matter protests

The Democratic Republic of Congo was finally established on June 30 1960, a date marked by a historic speech from independence leader Patrice Lumumba in which he described eight decades of subjugation that were “filled with tears, fire and blood.”

With no immediate offer of visas, very few Congolese people came to Belgium until recently — so while the country became home to people from a number of European nations, colonial sentiments towards African cultures have never been fully shaken off in the country.

That prevailing attitude has led to a number of high-profile incidents of blackface in the country, including by leading politicians, and a general lack of education around Belgium’s imperialist past. Last year, a group of UN human rights experts visited several cities in Belgium and found “clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium.”

A Leopold II statue in Antwerp was removed after Black Lives Matter protests swept around the globe earlier this month, while another opposite Brussels’ Royal Palace has been repeatedly covered in anti-racist graffiti.

Els Van Hoof, a Belgian MP who leads the chamber of representative’s foreign affairs committee, says the parliamentary inquiry may tackle the question of what to do with statues of Leopold II, though the exact scope of work has yet to be determined.

CNN’s Stephanie Halasz, Scott McLean and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this report.

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