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Europe’s Hollow Apologies for Colonial Crimes Stand in the Way of True Reparation

I still remember the sense of excitement that ran through activist circles in Brussels when the king of Belgium expressed his regret for colonial violence in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, and suddenly it felt like the mask of collective amnesia over Europe’s colonial past was starting to crack, setting us on a path towards real, reparative justice.

But three years on, the fight for justice seems more fraught than ever. In recent weeks, heads of state from Germany and Great Britain have addressed the colonial crimes committed in Tanzania and Kenya respectively. King Charles III, on an official visit to Kenya in early November, expressed his “deep regret” for the colonial abuses perpetrated by British forces. The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, asked for “forgiveness” for the crimes perpetrated by the German army in Tanzania against up to 300,000 people during the Maji Maji revolts at the beginning of the 20th century.

Statements of apology like these may look progressive. Indeed, they have become more frequent since 2020, when a spate of racial violence triggered a global reckoning with western imperialist history and its contemporary consequences. But I believe they are hindering true progress in the ongoing fight for colonial reparations.

European initiatives to address past wrongs are directed through a western lens. It is European actors who ultimately decide which colonial abuses are to be redressed and how, while longstanding African demands for reparations, which have been voiced for 60 years, continue to be ignored. This is the case, for instance, with demands for reparations in relation to the looting of natural resources across the continent by foreign states and private companies, or in relation to the odious debts inherited from colonisation.

European initiatives for repair reveal a “divide and conquer” approach. For instance, the African Union and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, have expressed demands for reparation since 1993. In a bid to reform and correct the international financial and political order, the union has repeatedly asked for a seat on the United Nations security council and better representation for African states in the governance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These demands were reiterated this month at the Accra reparations conference organised by the African Union and the Caribbean Community (Caricom). Yet neither these demands nor the African Union’s place as a key interlocutor in the negotiation of Europe’s response to its colonial crimes have been considered in European leaders’ expressions of regret or apologies.

This divide and conquer approach is also evident in the way European states deal with their former colonies. In 2021, the German government apologised for the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama communities and paid €1.1bn in development aid to the Namibian state. But the negotiation excluded the Ovaherero and Nama communities, who received no financial compensation. The agreement holds that only the Namibian state will receive funding, through development aid.

European states’ apologies and expressions of regret give the impression that the colonial question and its contemporary consequences are taken seriously, with the result that the pressure exerted on governments to act is weakened. The abduction of mixed-race children by the Belgian colonial administration is a case in point. During the colonial era, the Belgian state abducted thousands of mixed-race children in DRC, Burundi and Rwanda and placed them in religious institutions. This practice of targeted segregation and forced removal by the Belgian state reflected the will to isolate mixed-race children, who were considered, at the time, a danger to the colonial order.

In 2019, Belgium’s prime minister apologised for this policy before parliament. At the time, I took this to mean the Belgian state was taking this case seriously and would accept victims’ demands for reparations. Instead, two years later, during a lawsuit brought by victims demanding financial reparations, a Brussels court ruled that the policy of abducting and placing children “was not part of a generalised or systematic policy, deliberately destructive, which characterises a crime against humanity”.

In the 15 years I have spent researching and working for national and international NGOs on colonial crimes, apartheid and contemporary human rights violations, I have come to the conclusion that we should be wary of these apologies and regrets from European leaders. Genuinely addressing the issue of colonial violence and its aftermath requires starting from the demands for justice and reparation expressed by formerly colonised peoples and states, and from the alliances that have already been formed among them. In the absence of such an approach, it would be appropriate for all of us to proactively reject European leaders’ regrets – they only jeopardise our efforts to seek justice and reparation.

Source: The Guardian