From Thu Mar 14 06:30:04 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Belgium's murky history
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 11:24:11 +0100 (CET)

Brussels repents its African sins: Belgium's murky history

By Colette Braeckman, Le Monde diplomatique, March 2002

Two Rwandans were convicted in Belgium last year of playing a part in genocide, under a 1993 law giving Belgian courts universal jurisdiction. Perhaps this ethical policy means Belgium is admitting its dark colonial past.

On 7 April 2000 the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, addressed thousands of Rwandans gathered in Kigali for the sixth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in which, according to the Rwandan government, a million Rwandans lost their lives. President Paul Kagame described the speech as courageous in the context of Belgian politics. Looking pale and gripping his lectern tightly as he stood by the communal graves containing the remains of 50,000 of the victims, Verhofstadt said: I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide. In the name of my country and my people, I ask your forgiveness. The crowd listened in heavy silence, and many were in tears.

Verhofstadt had gone further and spoken in stronger terms than any of the other Western leaders to visit Kigali before him. Earlier, outside the barracks where 10 Belgian Blue Helmets from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (Unamir) had been killed by Rwandan soldiers in a frenzied attack on 6 April 1994 (following the death of President Habyarimana in a plane crash that same day), Verhofstadt acknowledged that the operation in which the UN soldiers had been involved had been ill-planned and ill-equipped, displaying an insensitivity to Rwanda's tragedy that verged on the absurd (1).

Belgium's unilateral decision to withdraw its Unamir forces after the murders made it impossible for the UN to intervene effectively and prevent the century's third genocide being carried through to its conclusion. For eight months the parliamentary commission chaired by Verhofstadt heard evidence from dozens of witnesses. Its investigation went far beyond the events of 1994.

Participants and witnesses from the highest levels of government and the armed forces looked back on Belgium's record in Rwanda and Burundi, former German colonies mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations after the first world war. While some tried to defend the colonial operation, others pointed out that the division between the country's two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, which paved the way for the ethnic conflict culminating in the 1994 genocide, was partially due to the Belgians. For decades the German and later the Belgian colonial powers had relied on the Tutsis—cattle breeders who saw themselves more as a caste than an ethnic group—to run the country and control the far more numerous Hutu farmers. But in the late 1950s the Tutsi elite started to demand independence and the mwami (king) considered calling on the UN for help. Belgium and the Church decided to defend the democratic rights of the Hutu majority, represented by Gregoire Kayibanda, founder of the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (Parmehutu) and former secretary to the bishop of Kapgayi.

In a referendum tightly controlled by the Belgians, the country voted in favour of a republic. King Kigeri went into exile and the Tutsis were ousted from power, driven off their land and physically threatened. Hundreds of thousands of them fled to neighbouring countries, especially Uganda, from where the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) launched its resistance. For 30 years the Belgians had tolerated successive Hutu governments although they were well aware of their human rights violations. In the years before the genocide, France and Belgium gave unconditional support to President Habyarimana's ethnocentric and corrupt regime.

But the Belgians were more committed than the French to implementing the Arusha peace agreement signed in August 1993, under which 450 Belgian soldiers would be attached to the Unamir contingent. The risks of this operation were totally underestimated. Instructors said it would be like going to the Club Med. The Rwandan government still had powerful supporters in Brussels, and the Belgians continued to turn a blind eye to an increasingly worrying situation, confining themselves to diplomatic protests.

Horror at the genocide

The astonished and horrified reaction to the 1994 genocide changed attitudes. Belgium tried to blot out its colonial history. Finally public pressure and action by the families of the murdered UN soldiers forced the government to set up a parliamentary commission, whose work, carried out with great honesty, had a truly cathartic effect. Verhofstadt's words of remorse in Kigali met with widespread approval. Belgium had finally come to terms with the fact that it had to face up to its colonial past. The prime minister had gone even further when he spoke to the stunned Rwandans, giving an assurance that those in Belgium who had been responsible for the genocide would not escape justice.

He was going to make sure that the country implemented the 1993 universal jurisdiction law allowing the Belgian courts to try war crimes and crimes against humanity committed abroad. In June 2001 a Brussels court sentenced two nuns, an academic and an intellectual for their part in the genocide. The trial was a further reminder of Belgium's historic role in Rwanda (2). After that chastening experience, Belgium turned its attention to the Congo—an even darker heart of its colonial past.

As the historian Jean Stengers explains, the Congo was created as one man's personal enterprise (3). Originally the private property of King Leopold II, the country was ceded to the Belgian government in 1908 and gained its independence in 1960. The king, who never went there, expected the colony to recoup his initial investment and make a profit that could be spent on grandiose projects in Belgium like the Cinquantenaire arches and the Ostend thermal baths. He ordered soldiers recruited from various parts of Europe to force villagers to hand over a specific quota of rubber. Since they were supposed to conserve ammunition, officers made their men cut off their victims' hands and bring them back to prove that their cartridges had been used for their proper purpose. That led to the accusation that Leopold II had organised a slow extermination resulting in 10m deaths. This accusation prompted some of the people attending the Durban Conference against Racism in August 2001 to allege that Belgium had been responsible for the century's first genocide.

An international commission had investigated what was happening in the Congo as long ago as 1904. After a vigorous campaign in the British press (which, given the competition between the colonial powers, was hardly disinterested), King Leopold eventually handed his personal possession over to Belgium. If there was violence, it was due not so much to the initial occupation of the country (Stanley had been careful not to resort to force) as to its economic exploitation (4). Described as development, this exploitation continued until after the second world war, during which Belgium worked the copper and uranium mines at full capacity. After the war it made a major investment in social welfare, health, education, housing and infrastructures, although the gap between whites and blacks was still wide.

The Belgians are still not too concerned about this rereading of history. Most take a positive view of the colonisation, pointing out that, even though the Congo had fewer than 10 universities in 1960, primary education was available virtually all over the country. Until now the Belgians have preferred to draw attention to Zaire's problems under Mobutu. Few researchers and writers, other than Jules Marchal, have denounced the iniquities of the colonial era (5).

But this consensus was affected by the parliamentary commission investigating the government's role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the popular first head of government in the independent Congo. By 1958 the Belgians were already conducting an orchestrated campaign to ostracise Lumumba. At the independence ceremony on 30 June 1960 Lumumba told King Baudouin outright that the law was never the same for whites and blacks. The king took this as an insult and the Belgian government determined to oust Lumumba from power.

A Flemish researcher and sociologist, Ludo De Witte, sparked off the controversy. His book L'Assassinat de Lumumba (6) was the first systematic refutation of the official version of history. In his view there was no doubt that Lumumba, seen as a threat to Belgian economic interests and hated by the Catholic Church for his secular alliances, had been the victim of a state crime, which the government had incited and covered up at the highest level. A parliamentary commission was set up to look into the allegation. With the help of experts, it heard dozens of witnesses and went through the foreign ministry files, carried out searches and seized documents.

A damning report

The commission produced a damning report on 16 November 2001, saying that it was true that in July 1960 the Belgian government, with no regard for the fact that the Congo was a sovereign country, had set out to remove Lumumba from the political arena. Brussels had undermined the unitary state by encouraging Katanga and Kasai to secede, while the major companies (Union minière in Katanga, Forminière in Kasai) paid their taxes to the breakaway governments. The Belgian government managed to get parliament to vote it secret funds worth 270m current Belgian francs ($5.8m). With this generous budget, plus private contributions, it was able to subsidise a campaign of destabilisation and covert operations, including arms supplies, assistance in arresting Lumumba, attempted abduction and plans for an assassination attempt. The report recalls the words of the then foreign minister, Pierre Wigny, (We have to make sure Lumumba cannot do any harm) and the minister for Africa, Harold d'Aspremont Lynden, who, in a telex on 6 October 1960, urged the permanent elimination of Lumumba when he was already in prison after being removed from office.

When Lumumba was recaptured in November 1960 after trying to escape to Kisangani and join his supporters in Stanleyville, the Belgian government insisted on his being moved to Katanga, where his bitterest enemies had pledged to get rid of him. Not unexpectedly, five hours after he arrived Lumumba and his two companions, Joseph M'Polo and Maurice Okito, were executed by Katangan gendarmes and police officers, in the presence of a senior Belgian police officer and three other Belgian officers.

Although it pulls no punches, the report moderates its tone at the end. The commission finds that neither the Belgian government nor any of its members at any time actually gave orders for Lumumba to be killed. Its conclusion, therefore, is that some members of the Belgian government had a moral responsibility for the circumstances leading to the assassination. The commission leaves it to parliament to define the charges more precisely and decide on any reparations. Although MPs were keen to obtain a consensus and did not commit themselves on the political responsibility of the authorities at the time, they were scrupulously honest in their deliberations, and the effects are still being felt.

This is because one of the commission's conclusions is a direct attack on King Baudouin, who is revered by many Belgians. The king was hostile to Lumumba and strongly supported Moise Tshombe, the secessionist leader of Katanga. He followed his own policy in the Congo and failed to inform the government when told of the threats to kill Lumumba. In an implied criticism of the monarchy, the committee points out that any action by the head of state that might have direct or indirect political consequences should have the backing of a minister.

The files also cast light on Belgian policy in Rwanda and Burundi. Records show that Brussels placed Prince Louis Rwagasore, son of the king of Burundi, under house arrest in 1960 and would not release him until he gave up all political activity. A year later, after becoming prime minister, Rwagasore was assassinated by a Greek in the pay of the Christian Democratic Party, which had close links with Belgium and the Church.

The Belgian government, a new political generation in what is now a federal state, has committed itself to finding out the truth about past policy in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, hoping that this will draw a line under the past and help rebuild relations with Africa. Belgium is hoping in particular to help restore peace in Congo, which has never recovered from the crime of 1960 (7).


(1) Le Soir, Brussels, 8 April 2000. There were suggestions that President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by the Rwanda Patriotic Front

(2) See Monique Bernier's account, La Honte and Le Silence des collines, Les Eperonniers, Brussels, 2000 and 2001.

(3) Congo, mythes et réalités, 100 ans d'histoire, Duculot, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1989.

(4) See Adam Hochschild, Les Fantômes du roi Léopold, un holocauste oublié, Belfond, Paris 1998. Having failed to interest the British government in developing the region, Stanley was employed by King Leopold to explore the Congo region and acquire land. This led to the establishment of the Congo Free State under Leopold's sovereignty.

(5) Jules Marchal, L'Histoire du Congo 1910-1945, vol I, 1999, vol II, 2000, vol III, 2001. Editions Paula Bellings, Borgloon, Belgium.

(6) Karthala, Paris, 2000.

(7) See Congo: a war without victors, Le Monde diplomatique English edition, March 2001.