After Dutch Apology For Slavery, Why Is Belgium Balking On Its Colonial History?
On the same day that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte officially apologized for the Netherlands’ involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in neighboring Belgium, a parliamentary committee was unable to garner enough political support to apologize for decades of brutal colonization in central Africa.
Belgium and the Netherlands share a border, a language and a bustling trade relationship in the heart of Europe — they also share an ugly colonial legacy.
Yet while the Netherlands offered a landmark official apology this week for its ugly past, politicians in Belgium couldn't agree to do the same with its own colonial atrocities.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte officially apologized on Monday for the Netherlands’ involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, saying the country needed to do more to atone for its past. The country will set up a €200 million fund dedicated to raising awareness of the country’s past, as well as “addressing the present-day effects of slavery,” the Dutch government announced.
But on the same day in neighboring Belgium, a parliamentary committee folded after more than two years of work when members of parliament couldn’t agree on whether the country should apologize for decades of brutal colonization in central Africa.
The Belgian government established the committee shortly after the 2020 U.S. murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis set off a global reckoning over racism and colonialism — an event that also partly inspired the Dutch apology.
Fear of reparations
Committee members had reached consensus on nearly all of 128 recommendations to be sent to the Belgian parliament, but couldn’t agree on whether the country should make an apology, reported RTBF.
“Why should all Belgians of today apologize?” member of Parliament Maggie De Block asked in November. Some members worried that an official apology could lead to a request for reparations.
Yet for Green party representative Guillaume Defosse, the committee’s failure to reach an agreement on apologizing was a “waste, a huge disappointment.”
Legacy of King Leopold II
The Belgian government has never apologized for atrocities committed during its colonization of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
Over four decades, the country’s quest for rubber under King Leopold II led to the deaths of as many as 10 million Congolese — cutting the country's population in half by 1920.
“To think that the Congolese, Burundian and Rwandan people deserve nothing but our deep regrets … is to consider that they do not deserve apologies,” Belgian lawyer and professor Pierre d’Argent wrote in Brussels-based daily Le Soir this week. “It’s putting our dignity ahead of theirs.”
An apology for the country’s colonial past is long overdue and would be a “dignified and honorable act,” d’Argent wrote.
In a visit to Kinshasa in 2022, Belgian King Philippe offered his “deepest regrets” and also brought back a Congolese mask, the first of 84,000 objects plundered from Congo which the Belgian government agreed to return.
Still, Philippe did not officially apologize for the kingdom’s decades of bloody rule.
“In the face of the crimes committed by Belgium, regrets are not enough. We expect an apology and a promise of reparations,” Congolese Senator Francine Muyumba Nkanga said on Twitter after the king’s visit.
Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte apologizing for the past actions of the Dutch State: to enslaved people in the past
European countries have a mixed record on apologizing for slavery and colonial abuses.
Germany apologized last year for killing 75,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia in a 1904-1908 campaign the German foreign minister described as genocide.
Germany Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in December that she would return bronze sculptures stolen by British colonizers from what is now Nigeria, on her next visit to the country. The country has already agreed to return more than 500 of the sculptures currently in German museums.
The British royal family has condemned the UK’s slave trading, with Prince William recently saying he felt “profound sorrow” for slavery — but the family and British politicians have never officially apologized.
UK institutions including the Bank of England and insurance broker Lloyds of London, as well as the city of Edinburgh have apologized for their participation in the slave trade.
Across the Atlantic, Canadian leaders have apologized on several occasions for the country’s residential school system, which separated Indigenous children from their families as part of a system of cultural genocide — although the government has been criticized for not moving quickly enough to address the ongoing effects of colonization.
Reaction to Monday's Dutch apology was mixed in the Caribbean, where Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs of the island nation of Sint Maarten wasn’t yet ready to accept an apology.
Local activist and scholar Rhoda Arrindell in the former Dutch Antilles said the Netherlands needs to offer reparations in addition to the apology. “It's a one-sided, colonial approach, and we reject it,” she declared.
As for Belgium, and its former colonies, there's an even longer road yet to travel.