'Deepest regrets': Belgium issues apology to Congo for colonial past
Belgium's King Philippe has expressed his "deepest regrets", for the first time, for crimes and abuses committed against the Congolese people during the colonial period.
King Philippe's letter to Congolese president Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo comes on the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo's independence from Belgium.
In the letter, the king expresses his "deepest regrets" for the "acts of violence" and "suffering" inflicted by Leopold II.
The former Belgian king made Congo his personal property for 23 years, from 1885 to 1908. He is notorious in colonial history for his enslavement of millions of Congolese and ensuing atrocities over the period.
It is estimated that anywhere from five to 15 million Congolese people died as a direct result of colonisation during the period. So serious were the consequences that the Belgian state took over the administration of the Congo from Leopold II in 1908.
King Philippe wrote: "To further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk about our long common history with truth and serenity. Our history is made of common achievements but also painful episodes."
He said that during the colonial era "acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period caused suffering and humiliation".
"I would like to express my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies."
King Philippe is the first Belgian monarch to formally express regret for Belgian atrocities in the colonial era. The king added that he was committed to combating "all forms of racism".
In recent weeks, several statues of Leopold II in Belgium have been defaced, knocked over or removed by authorities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest, prompting a new round of debates about the presence of monuments to the colonialist king.
Prime minister Sophie Wilmès inaugurated a commemorative plaque at the entrance to Ixelles town hall to mark the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence.
She acknolwedged that the past had been "imbued with inequality and violence towards the Congolese".
"The time has come for Belgium to begin a journey of truth and memory," she said. "That starts by recognising the suffering of others."
Wilmès added: "While our country has always fought hard against racism and all forms of discrimination, there is still work to be done to ensure equal opportunities for all."