Belgian King Expresses “Deepest Regrets” For Belgium’s Colonial Past But Does Not Apologise

During his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium’s King Philippe criticised his country’s former colonial regime but stopped short of an apology. King Philippe visited the Democratic Republic for the first time in June as part of Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi’s efforts to improve relations with Belgium. While speaking to a joint session of Parliament, the king reiterated his “deepest regrets for those wounds of the past.” King Philippe became the first Belgian official to convey his regret for colonisation in 2020. However, he did not offer an official apology for his country’s actions. Belgium’s colonial regime was brutally violent, especially under the leadership of King Leopold II. By some estimates, up to 10 million African people may have died during Leopold’s reign. 

During his speech to Parliament, the king noted that “This regime was one of unequal relations, unjustifiable in itself, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism… On the occasion of my first trip to Congo, right here, in front of the Congolese people and those who still suffer today, I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for those wounds of the past.” Yet some members of the royal family do not believe that King Philippe went far enough in his announcement. Princess Esmerelda, the king’s aunt, told BBC, “I feel that probably the apologies should be coming soon, formal apologies for the past and for the colonial atrocities that were committed.”

Many people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are disappointed by the lack of a formal apology as well. In an interview with CNN, Professor Antoine Roger Lokongo from the University of Joseph Kasa-Vubu stated that “the simple regret that you have expressed is not sufficient.” Salesman Junior Bombi agreed, remarking “they left us isolated, abandoned. They pillaged all our resources, and today you invite the Belgian king again?” 

Belgium has taken several steps to remedy colonial wrongs. Brussels is working to return artefacts looted from the Congo and placed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The Belgian Parliament has established a commission to examine the state’s historical record and will release a report this year. These actions are steps in the right direction, but Brussels must do more. King Philippe should offer a full formal apology recognizing Belgium’s role in the atrocities. Belgium’s educational curriculum should cover the state’s colonial abuses objectively and completely. Financial reparations should also be considered. The country must address its past mistakes to begin to move forward.

Belgium took control of the Congo in 1885, and King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as his personal property. The Belgian regime utilised brutal forced labour to trade rubber, ivory, and minerals. When trade quotas were not met, authorities would often chop off the limbs of enslaved people in retribution. According to BBC News, administrators kidnapped orphaned Congolese children and sent them to so-called “child colonies,” forcing them to work or become soldiers. More than fifty per cent of these children are believed to have died. King Leopold II also built a human zoo on the grounds of his palace and imprisoned over 200 Congolese people as “human exhibits.” The king’s regime was so violent that other colonialist European countries condemned him, and the Belgian parliament took control away from him. Belgium ruled the colony until the Republic of Congo won its independence in 1960. Belgian officials have only begun to confront and admit to the atrocities in recent years.

Given the extent of Belgium’s crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a statement of regret is entirely inadequate as regret does little to heal historical wounds or distance Belgium from its colonialist past. An apology is essential to sustaining good relations between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Belgium. Moreover, a true apology and acknowledgement of colonial atrocities are crucial to state integrity. If the Belgian government does not face its past, injustice will multiply. Belgium owes the Democratic Republic of Congo much more than regret.