Belgium’s King Philippe has issued a formal apology, for the first time, for crimes and abuses committed against the Congolese people during the colonial period.
Prime minister Sophie Wilmès is also expected to deliver a speech later apologising for the colonial mistreatment on the Belgian government’s behalf.
King Philippe’s letter of apology to Congolese president Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo comes on the 60th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence from Belgium.
News of the apology made the front pages of most Belgian daily newspapers on Tuesday. 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.
Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès is expected to deliver a similar speech on Tuesday, according to La Libre newspaper.