Belgium to pay reparations for colonial past?

A group of experts has presented its preliminary report to the Belgian select committee examining Belgium’s colonial past, the committee commonly known as the Congo commission. They offer opportunities to recognise and process our colonial past together with the people of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda in Belgium and in their own countries.

“Everything passes except the past” are words written on a wall at Belgium’s renovated Africa Museum in Tervuren.  They speak of phantom pain that people still feel today because of the injustice inflicted on their ancestors.  Jurist Martien Schotsmans cited these words as she presented her recommendations on how Belgium can compensate the victims of the colonial regime and heal wounds.

Experts agree that atrocities were committed during the Belgian period, during the regime under King Leopold II, later when Congo became a Belgian colony and even after Congo, Burundi and Rwanda gained independence.  The colonised people were exploited, physically, economically, and psychologically.  The experts say it’s high time Belgium takes its responsibility.

In a 700-page document the experts recommend how this could happen, but they have also requested more time to scrutinise what exactly happened in Rwanda and Burundi and examine the important role of the Roman Catholic Church.

Experts suggest the populations that suffered should receive compensation, but that, they say, is not solely a matter of money, apologies, or the return of artefacts.  “A comprehensive programme of reparations agreed after consultations with all parties is needed” said Schotsmans: “The truth must be recognised.  Discussions must be held with target groups, during hearings or consultations.  The goal must be ‘outreach’: a debate in society on colonialism and its effects including racism.  Only in this way can you achieve enough support to work on long term reparation”.

The presentation met a mixed response from lawmakers.  Art historian Anne Wetsi Mpoma’s call for financial reparations was rejected by some.  Others criticised a proposal to regularise undocumented people from the three countries or to adopt positive discrimination.

The report has added to the select committee’s workload.  One lawmaker labelled it a cornerstone on which to build, while another warned the committee’s work was in danger of becoming an endless process without any result.  

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