King empire

Controversial visit of the King of the Belgians to the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Belgian King Philippe, recently visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire. It is the first time that the king, who ascended the throne in 2013, has visited the country. He was accompanied by his wife, Queen Mathilde, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Philip is a descendant of King Leopold II, who, following the work of explorer Henry Morton Stanley, seized this important African landmass in 1885 and established the Congo Free State as his personal fief. . He ruled the Congo Free State until 1908, when it was transformed into a colony of Belgium – the Belgian Congo – until independence in 1960.

King Leopold II notoriously treated the Congolese people with brutality, plundering the country’s resources while enriching himself. He is estimated to have earned over a billion dollars (in today’s money) from his exploitation of the country, although he never set foot there himself.

The king also employed Congolese on vast rubber plantations and amputated the hands and legs of workers unable to meet their quotas.

Commentators believe that around half of the Congolese population perished from punishment or malnutrition. By the time the king died on December 17, 1909, Leopold II’s horrific human rights abuses were well documented and his reputation ruined. Crowds of Belgian spectators booed his funeral procession.

Yet for many decades after his death, Leopold II was officially revered as a great king who gave Belgium an empire. He was honored by various foreign governments and even by the most recent King Baudouin of Belgium who called him a “genius”.

Until about ten years ago, Belgian school history textbooks passed over in silence the terrible atrocities committed in the name of King Leopold II. And statues to celebrate the “feats” of the King are erected throughout Belgium.

However, since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, statues of Leopold II have been vandalized and a few have been removed by local councils. In addition, the country’s parliament has set up a committee to examine the history of the Belgian colonization project in the Congo with a report expected later this year.

A statue of King Leopold II seen at a crossroads in Arlon, Belgium, July 15, 2020. The inscription reads: ‘I undertook the work of the Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good from Belgium”. (Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images)

However, King Philippe’s recent visit to the DRC is causing controversy as he has yet to apologize for the inhuman and degrading treatment of the Congolese people.

In 2020, he expressed “deep regret” for the suffering and discriminatory treatment of Congolese people, and the atrocities committed during the reign of Leopold II. However, his statement of regret never constituted a formal apology.

During his June 2022 visit, King Philippe returned a traditional initiation mask of the Suku people, who inhabited the southwestern part of the DRC. The mask had been on display at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, and it will now be “on loan for an indefinite period” to the DRC – a loan gratefully accepted by DRC President Felix Tshisekedi.

When returning the mask, the King said: “This marks the symbolic start of the strengthening of cultural collaboration between Belgium and Congo”.

The King also addressed the Palais du Peuple, the Congolese Parliament, on June 8, 2022, expressing his “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by Belgium against the Congolese people. “I would like to express here, in front of the Congolese people and all those who still suffer today, my deepest regret for these wounds of the past,” he said.

However, Philippe’s expressions of “profound regret” do not constitute an official and formal apology; it doesn’t even go further than his first expressions of regret in 2020.

The DRC’s expectation or hope that King Philippe would apologize during his speech to the DRC Parliament is food for thought.

Had the king issued a formal apology, he would have apologized for the horrific atrocities his ancestor was responsible for and potentially exposed his family to claims for compensation.

Epoch Times Photo
Queen Mathilde of Belgium and King Philippe of Belgium pictured during a visit to the village of Katanga near Lubumbashi, during an official visit by the Belgian royal couple to the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 11, 2022. (Benoit Doppagne/ Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

And in the future, would it even be possible to find Belgian citizens and descendants of King Leopold II directly responsible for human rights violations?

Many Belgians in the administration of the Belgian Congo were able to benefit from their colonizer status. But it would be difficult to draw a connection between the living Belgians and the atrocities committed in the Congo decades ago.

Holding the current Belgian regime responsible would also invalidate the principle that only those who inflicted misery on the Congolese should be held accountable for atrocities.

Be that as it may, even if an apology is not forthcoming, the visit should nevertheless lead to an improvement in relations between Belgium and the DRC, reviving economic and cultural ties capable, in the long term, of erasing any bitterness still felt in the DRC.

For now, a formal apology will be a bridge too far.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Gabriel Moens

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Gabriël A. Moens AM is Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and was Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Prime Minister’s Australian Centenary Medal for his services to education. He has taught extensively in Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States. Moens recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).