Transitional justice’s role in addressing Belgium’s colonial past
Belgium is the first country to establish a parliamentary commission dealing with its overseas colonial past in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. The commission was established in July 2020. This happened after the public outcry about George Floyd’s murder, the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, huge anti-racism protests, and a growing debate about Belgium’s colonial heritage, illustrated by the contestation over statues of King Leopold II, who was responsible for widespread atrocities committed under his rule.
The mission of this “special commission” is to shed a light on all aspects of Belgium’s colonial past. To this end, it appointed ten experts and four civil society representatives to write a report that was supposed to be released months ago, but which has not been made public to date. Civil society organisations have welcomed the commission as an opportunity to confront Belgium’s colonial past and to address contemporary injustices. Yet, many of them are also critical about the process, and particularly about the limited consultation regarding how this process should be designed, the selection of the experts, and the overall lack of transparency.
Our interviewee in this episode, Dr. Liliane Umubyeyi, research coordinator at Avocats Sans Frontières, elaborates on the shortcomings of the commission:
“Theoretically, it’s ambitious and it’s something that could be replicated in other countries. But at this point it’s empty. So we have to see something concrete.”
While she is cautious about too technical or theoretical an approach, she confirms that the paradigm of transitional justice is potentially an apt one in the Belgian experience:
“A commission like this offers an opportunity that, for example, criminal trials wouldn’t offer in terms of understanding the different lines of responsibility in historical injustices of going beyond individual responsibility in terms of bringing or finding proofs.”