Special Parliamentary Commission on the Belgian colonial past visit Rwanda

Five of the eight members of the Special Commission on the Belgian colonial past and its consequences visiting Rwanda

Kigali: After a two day visit to Rwanda, the Belgian parliamentarians who are members of the “Special Commission on the Belgian colonial past and its consequences” has returned to Brussels, after a nine-day journey that will have taken it to the DRC, to Burundi and in Rwanda. The President of this Commission, Wouter De Vriendt, met with André Gakwaya of the Rwandan News Agency (ARI-RNA) and he spoke about their mission, the challenges, and the report to be drawn up, always to build a better future between Belgium and the three countries. Read his interview:

 Rwanda News Agency (ARI) – Do you start by introducing yourself? 

Wouter De Vriendt (WDV) – My name is Wouter De Vriendt. I am the President of the Special Commission on the Colonial Past. It is a Commission of the House of Representatives of Belgium for the three countries concerned: Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. 

ARI – You are now in Kigali. Have you been to DRC and Burundi? Is this your last trip?

 WDV – This is the last stop here in Kigali. In a few hours, the delegation returns to Belgium. But why did we come here to Rwanda, Burundi and Congo? We were here in Kigali in fact to listen to you, to listen to the Rwandans. We came here with a real listening attitude, taking into account the colonial past, the painful things of that time. Here, we are here with a rather modest attitude. A listening attitude. 

We are 60 years after the independence of Rwanda. In fact, this is the first time that the Belgian Parliament has undertaken such a memory exercise. One can ask why it took so long?  That’s a very good question. There are probably different reasons. But the most important thing is that Parliament has nevertheless shown this conviction to embark on this work of memory, which is the reason why we are here. Let me start by explaining the mandate of our Commission, what is it that we do exactly ?

There are three major components to our mandate. The first part is a historical undertaking. What happened, what was the role, the responsibility of the different state and non-state actors during the colonial past here in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo? 

 Second part, reconciliation. Possible repairs. How to be able or how to try to repair the injustices of the colonial system? 

Wouter De Vriendt, President of the Special Commission on the Belgian colonial past and its consequences

And third part: What is the link between the colonial past and the discrimination and racism that unfortunately still exist in Belgian society today? So where are we in our work? So far, we have had hearings in Parliament, we have heard from more than 120 people, including many Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese and representatives of the diaspora. We will write our conclusions towards the end of the year.

And we are accompanied by a group of experts of three scientists including Mrs Valérie Rosoux from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) who is part of the Belgian delegation, also during our visit here, since the beginning of the Commission. 

The Commission began its work in July 2020, which means that as a whole, we are carrying out this work for two and a half years. However, from the beginning, we decided to be accompanied by an initial group of ten experts, because there is no manual for our work. 

This is because it is the first time that a former colonial power has engaged in such a work of memory. In addition, towards the end of the year, we have to write our conclusions. These are political recommendations of Parliament for the Government. It is important to note that we are a parliamentary delegation, we are a parliamentary committee. I am not speaking on behalf of the Belgian government, but on behalf of our parliamentary committee. 

At the beginning of July 2022, we had a letter from King Philippe who expressed his deep regrets. We also had a certain social pressure to really start with this work of memory because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked the debate in Belgium about racism and discrimination. As a result we had initiatives from political groups in the Belgian Parliament who insisted on the urgency of this work of memory and recognition. 

All these elements triggered the beginning of our Commission. So we have to write our conclusions towards the end of the year, but I will really emphasise that for us the process and the methodology are also important. There are three key principles: 

First principle: mutual respect, work as equals. We want to hear from the victims of colonisation and we come here with a listening attitude instead of what could be a paternalistic attitude. 

Second key principle: inclusion and participation. We have therefore tried to involve experts, speakers, Congolese, Rwandans, Burundians, and members of the diaspora with a fairly open methodology, which is also innovative for a parliament, because normally when a parliament wants to choose which experts or which speakers are going to be invited to hearings in a Commission, it is the political groups that make the choice. But we tried to reverse this logic, and we published on the website of the Chamber a public appeal, an open appeal to all those who feel interested and concerned by this work of memory. 

And the third key methodological principle is transparency. There is a broadcast of each hearing, a broadcast on the chamber’s website and all our documents are published there, and fortunately the Belgian media also follow our work. 

Is this an easy job? No way. It is actually extremely difficult. One of the reasons, as I have already mentioned, is that this is the first time that a former colonial power has undertaken work of such magnitude. There are examples abroad, for example Germany, Namibia, etc., but with a much more restrained ambition, limited than the ambition of our parliament.

The second reason that may explain the difficulty is obviously also the Belgian-Belgian political issue, I would say. This is a politicised issue. Not all political groups that are represented in the Belgian Parliament show the same level of enthusiasm. But all the same there is strong support from Parliament, otherwise we would not be there with the Commission, with the experts, with the feasibility of the work. And so we remain convinced. And maybe I’ll end there. 

Now, to point out some important topics. What are we talking about in this committee? Well there is the role of the Belgian State in the colonial past, the role of the monarchy, the role of the Church, the role of Belgian companies too, the restitution of cultural property, the extremely painful problem of children of mixed race, so called “métisses”, who were abandoned or abducted to Belgium, the archives and the accessibility to the archives which are in Belgium, how to make them more accessible for the scientists of Rwanda? 

Possible excuses, what to do with our public space, with the visibility of the colonial past in our streets and in our cities, see the monuments of Leopold II for example which have given rise to great debate, education, scientific collaboration, training. What commitment can Belgium develop with regard to  the education  of Rwandan youth? So it is a Commission that does not only look to the past, but also to the future, taking into account this colonial past. What actions should Belgium take to strengthen its commitment to Rwanda?

On this, we will have to write some recommendations, and obviously here in Rwanda there is a link between the colonial past and the dramatic events of 1994 and the Genocide against the Tutsis. Ethnic divisions were reinforced and even produced under colonial rule. Here, there is certainly a certain responsibility of Belgium. However, the colonial past is also the reason why Belgium is still today quite committed to Rwanda. In terms of development cooperation, for example, it is tens of millions of euros, so there is a strong commitment to Rwanda. Which is a very good thing. But there are undoubtedly other measures, other actions to be developed. 

The timing of our visit is also important. I cannot tell you what recommendations, what conclusions or what actions the Commission is going to propose because we are still in the hearing phase and the political debate on possible actions will take place in November – December. But it would obviously be illogical to come here to Rwanda with the decisive report already, with the final report, and that was our job, it was a Belgian-Belgian job. We would never come here to listen to you after already having written our conclusions. It would obviously be a mistake, another mistake, and so we chose the other methodology, a different approach, which is to come with a listening attitude, to collect suggestions. We take note, we engage in a dialogue and with all this feedback and these suggestions, also from Rwanda and our interlocutors here, we are going to continue the discussion in the Parliamentary Committee. 

ARI – But to see what the colonial work was, the three countries experienced massive, vast, deep destruction. I am referring to André Gide’s book “Voyage au Congo”. We were talking about a genocide that was being committed. People who didn’t go to do the chores in the rubber farm were beaten with a chicotte or had their legs or arms cut off. The damage was immense. And when you talk about reparation, is it a symbolic reparation or a real, substantial, just and equitable reparation, towards the three countries? Is Belgium able to do this? Finding means for such repair proves impossible. Can Belgium find sufficient means for this equitable reparation? It’s too much to hope for. We can read at least efforts. How do you approach this question?

WDV – First, you are absolutely right. It was enormous brutality, atrocities, a war in fact, occupation with rapes, with enormous exploitation of the three countries involved. So there is an undeniable injustice when we examine this colonial past. This is perhaps the reason for this recognition in the first place. What happened is important. 

We cannot move towards reconciliation without acknowledging what happened. It really also points to the roles of different state actors such as the state itself, the monarchy, but also the role of the Church. Then comes the discussion on reconciliation, reparation. And there, it is much too early to really tell you about the decisions to be made.

But I can tell you all the same already now that there are different options, different possibilities, without me committing to one of the options. I have already mentioned development cooperation, improving scientific cooperation, investing in training and education because it has a link with the colonial past. 

As you know, Belgium has really badly trained Rwandan, Burundian and Congolese youth. There was almost no secondary education and beyond university education really to prevent a certain Rwandan, Burundian, Congolese elite from emerging, which could oppose the colonial powers. 

If Belgium takes the decision to really engage in the field of education, in fact, it consists of a certain reparation of a historical error of the colonial past. So there is a link between the two. But we can also imagine scholarships, exchanges between students from Belgium and Rwanda that are stronger than there are today. 

There is the issue of “métisses”, really linked to the colonial past. Children from mixed race who were abducted in Belgium or abandoned in the three countries concerned. These are people who are still in despair and still searching for their roots. The Belgian State can help them. An effort is already being made, but it remains important to explore other possibilities. I’m not going to get too far into the recommendations and the ongoing debate already, but I think that what we heard in Rwanda requires Belgium’s commitment to Rwanda, a strong commitment, a lasting commitment also at the political level. 

Because when the world forgets the Great Lakes region, Belgium must always be there to sound the alarm and to trigger a political debate at international level about the Great Lakes region and the conflicts in the region.

Taking into account the colonial past, this is really the role that Belgium should play. We have this historical, even moral, responsibility. So there are plenty of possibilities. Let’s see in November – December what our conclusions would be. 

ARI- Are you satisfied with the welcome you received in Kigali? The people you have met?

WDV – Yes. Yes. Absolutely. It was extremely interesting. We were able to meet the President and the Vice-President of the Foreign Affairs Commission in Parliament. Obviously, we also visited the Genocide memorial in Kigali and the delegation laid a wreath. We spoke with Aegis Trust, we were able to meet different academics, different scientists, representatives of civil society an youth representatives. This morning we visited the memorial of Belgian blue helmets.

If we want to carry out serious work, we must go there to have a sincere dialogue, and I hope that we will be able to further develop our contacts also at the political level. We really have that desire. 

ARI- The subject can be vast. Briefly, how was the visit to Burundi and Congo? The rest you will give me the details later. 

WDV – It was really fruitful as a working visit. We were actually warmly welcomed. And what is really clear for the Belgian delegation is that there are still many links between Belgium and these three countries. At the level of the family, at the level of professional life, there is a very lasting historical link between the four countries. I only see a shared future. A common future between these four countries concerned. In politics, you have to be optimistic and I feel that we will sometimes see differences of opinion, but at the base there is a really good relationship, and I think we have to continue on this path. 

ARI-The people contacted are unanimous in saying that your work is suitable for building a shared future together?

 WDV – Most of the reactions were also about the future, about the future. And so the colonial past. Well, there are countries that have other concerns, other current problems. The challenges are sometimes immense in the countries concerned and the colonial past is never the first problem in people’s minds. That’s obvious. But I think the colonial past could really be the door to reconciliation. To together consider some actions to take, commitment and build a new better relationship.

 ARI-Thank you very much. 

WDV – With pleasure. …The meetings were all very fruitful. We haver met more than 150 people and organizations over nine days. (End)