The United Nations has told Belgium to apologise for its colonial past and criticised its newly renovated Africa Museum for not doing enough to exorcise the demons of its exploitation of the Congo.
Filled with more than 180,000 looted items and 500 stuffed animals, the museum celebrated the Belgians, who turned the Congo into a slave state ruled by Leopold II, for more than a century. The king’s brutal regime, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, killed millions and ruthlessly plundered the region of rubber.
After a week-long investigation, a UN working group said that racism suffered by those of African origin in Belgium could be traced back to the country’s failure to address its past. The panel noted the many remaining statues of Leopold and monuments to the colonial army that dot the streets and parks of Brussels.
“We urge the government to apologise for the atrocities committed during the colonisation,” said group president Michal Balcherzak.
Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, said he thought the findings, to be published in full in September, were “very strange”.
“We will have the opportunity to make our formal remarks. We certainly will,” he said and insisted Belgium stood against all forms of discrimination.
The AfricaMuseum reopened in December last year after a five year £67 million “decolonisation” renovation project. African artists were invited to display their work in an effort to modernise and detoxify the museum built by Leopold.
Described as the last colonial museum in the world, the museum celebrated the Belgians and their brutal history in the Congo under Leopold II, who ruled Congo with an iron fist for more than a century.
The UN experts also raised issues with the renovation of the Africa Museum at Tervuren, saying that Belgian authorities failed to reorganize the museum enough in order to “exorcise the demons of its exploitation of the Congo.”
The King of the Belgians, Leopold II, ruled from 1865 to 1909 and has been described as worse than Adolf Hitler for his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo) who he considered as his personal property including their lands and minerals.
An undetermined number of Congolese, ranging in the millions, were killed in the hands of Leopold’s private colonial militia of 90,000 men called Force Publique, which he used to run the region that is the size of Western Europe and 76 times larger than Belgium.
Reports said the blood money he made from the Congolese was used to build huge private and public construction projects in Belgium. He also built a palace in Belgium which is now called the Royal Museum of Central Africa (Africa Museum) to display his spoils.
The building currently makes no mention of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State despite the large collection of colonial objects. Last December, it was reopened after a five-year “decolonisation” renovation project.
However, the UN working group said it is unfortunate that Belgian authorities have refused to remove all the offensive and racist images that are still on display in the 1910 building.
“If you are talking about colonial history , then you are forced to look at the figure of the head of state , the figure of King Leopold II is unmistakable. Even in his own day he was condemned. If an historic apology needs to be made – because this seems to be relevant given the terrible number of people have been murdered for cash – then I think we should look to the head of state to make the apology”. – Bart De Wever, (Party leader of the New Flemish Alliance)
The group further expressed concerns over remaining statues of Leopold and monuments to the colonial army that are still on the streets and parks of Brussels.
It is said that generations of Belgian schoolchildren were told of Leopold’s so-called civilising and charitable mission.
They were told that he was a humanitarian king who abolished slavery, built roads and schools and introduced Christianity and democracy to Congo, said a report on The Irish Times.
The UN said: “The government should review and ensure that textbooks and educational materials accurately reflect historical facts as they relate to past tragedies and atrocities committed during the colonial era.”
Meanwhile, Belgian authorities, who expressed surprised by the findings of the UN group, said the colonial era images have been displayed in context. Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, who believed the findings were “very strange” said: “We will have the opportunity to make our formal remarks. We certainly will.”
The Belgian Congo, which includes the entirety of the present day Democratic Republic of Congo, gained independence in 1960.