‘It’s a sheer disgrace’

There will be no excuses for the Belgian colonial past. The Congo Commission has not been able to reach an agreement. The Open Vld and MR factions even left the session. ‘This is a slap in the face to the dozens of academics, experts by experience and other experts who have visited parliament.’

Kelly Van Droogenbroeck in Arseny Pogorilyak

After more than 2.5 years of negotiations, listening to experts and a working visit to the Belgian former colonies, the special commission for the Belgian colonial past was unable to reach an agreement. Even before the vote on the final conclusion could take place, members of the Liberal groups left the session.

The text that was presented consisted of the 128 proposals that committee chairman Wouter De Vriendt (Ecolo-Groen) had already made public. It does not state that Belgium must organize reparations, but that it must apologize for its colonial past. It is that article (number 69) that ultimately led to the split.

Open Vld and MR would have preferred to see ‘deep regret’ or ‘repentance’ instead of ‘apologies’. For the PS apologies were essential. Approving the text with a switching majority was not an option for either party, for fear of how that would affect the Vivaldi coalition.

“I am disappointed, but actually also stunned and dismayed”, De Vriendt responds. According to him, there was an agreement between the committee members of all political groups on October 13. It also stated that Belgium would apologize for its colonial past. Then three days later the agreement was rejected, according to De Vriendt, this had nothing to do with the apologies.

According to De Vriendt, it is forces outside parliament that have blocked the agreement. He refers to “electoral interests” that would have led certain parties to withdraw from the agreement. Both the chairmen of those parties and the Belgian royal house would have exerted pressure on members of the majority. For the king, both apologies and financial compensation would have been a red line.

Committee chairman Wouter De Vriendt (Groen): 'I am disappointed, but also stunned and dismayed.'  Picture BELGA

Committee chairman Wouter De Vriendt (Groen): ‘I am disappointed, but also stunned and dismayed.’Picture BELGA

Open Vld denies that there was already an agreement and that there was interference from outside. According to the party, they left the hearing because there is not enough legal certainty that apologies cannot lead to reparations. For them, yesterday’s vote was about all or nothing. “A final conclusion is not a menu from which you choose certain things,” says committee member Goedele Liekens (Open Vld). The party regrets that there is no agreement on symbolic measures, but also opposes further negotiations, “because this is already the third extension of the committee,” says Liekens. “Don’t forget that such a committee costs the taxpayer a lot of money.”

On Twitter, Tom Ruys (UGent), professor of international law and one of the experts in the committee, regrets that no agreement was reached. “This is despite several experts pointing out that fears of damage claims were wholly misplaced, and despite the fact that the chairman’s draft emphasized that apologies did not imply admission of legal liability.”

Dutch apologies

The failure of the Congo Commission came just on the day that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte did apologize on behalf of his government for the country’s slavery past. “For centuries, the Dutch state and its representatives have enabled, encouraged, maintained and benefited from slavery. For centuries people have been made commodities, exploited and mistreated in the name of the Dutch state. For that I apologize on behalf of the Dutch government.”

Political scientist and author of Daughter of Decolonization Nadia Nsayi reacts indignantly to the Belgian situation: “What happened is a pure disgrace. The representatives of MR and Open Vld, the political family of our prime minister, have said: this is not important enough for us. It does not matter whether there is still an extension of the parliamentary committee or not. This is a slap in the face to the dozens of academics, experts by experience and other experts who have visited parliament.”

According to Nsayi, the disappointing outcome indicates that Belgium is not ready for recovery in any form: “We should not underestimate the importance of the role played by financial interests. When you open things up, as has happened now, a lot of sectors that have been very quiet until now start to get involved. That is why it is the Liberals who have stepped up for the vote: they know that various sectors belonging to their electorate are now forced to look in the mirror.”

The committee’s work has not been in vain for De Vriendt. “Today the minds of some may not have been ripe, but tomorrow may be different. Times are changing. I am sure that in the coming years, politics in Belgium will take a step further.”

In the meantime CD&V committee member Jan Briers made a proposal to get to work with the articles about which there is consensus. “We have invested so much in this committee. Now let’s go to the Foreign Affairs Committee with the rest of the articles to discuss what we can do.” It is also possible for CD&V to negotiate further about Article 69. Briers is not opposed to apologies, but also believes that the current formulation offered too few legal guarantees.

Congo, 1950. Beeld Getty Images

Congo, 1950.Beeld Getty Images

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