world news Belgium’s King Philippe sends ‘regrets’ to Congo for Leopold II atrocities

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On the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence, King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in which he admitted that “to further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk about our long common history in all truth and serenity.”

Philippe is a descendent of Leopold II, who owned what was then called Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 and ruled its people brutally, exploiting their labor and committing atrocities against them. Historians estimate that under Leopold’s rule, as many as 10 million people died.

“Our history is made of common achievements but has also experienced painful episodes. During the period of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory,” the King wrote.

“The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” the letter adds, referring to the subsequent 52 years of rule by the Belgian state until Congo’s independence and the formation of the DRC. Leopold had ruled the region personally until 1908.

“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,” he added.

A statue in the grounds of Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa, featuring a bust of King Leopold II, was covered in red paint and topped with a traffic cone "dunce's cap."

A reassessment of Belgium’s colonial legacy has taken place in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests. Several statues depicting the former leader have been taken down in the country.

Earlier this month, Belgium’s parliament approved an inquiry into its colonial history.

“I welcome the process of reflection that our parliament has started, so that we may finally make peace with our memories,” the King wrote. But he did not take the opportunity to apologize to the DRC for the acts committed by Leopold II or by Belgian governments until 1960.

Britain's imperialist monuments face a bitter reckoning amid Black Lives Matter protests

With no offer of visas, very few Congolese people came to Belgium until very recently — so while the country became home to people from a number of European nations, colonial sentiments towards African cultures have never been fully shaken off in the country.

That has led to a number of high-profile incidents of blackface in the country, including by leading politicians.

Last year, a group of UN human rights experts visited several cities in Belgium and found “clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium.”

A Leopold II statue in Antwerp was removed after Black Lives Matter protests swept around the globe earlier this month, while another opposite Brussels’ Royal Palace has been repeatedly covered in anti-racist graffiti.

Els Van Hoof, a Belgian MP who leads the chamber of representative’s foreign affairs committee, says the parliamentary inquiry may tackle the question of what to do with statues of Leopold II, though the exact scope of work has yet to be determined.

CNN’s Scott McLean and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this report.

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