BRUSSELS — King Philippe of Belgium on Tuesday expressed his “deepest regrets” for his country’s brutal past in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first public acknowledgment from a member of the Belgian royal family of the devastating human and financial toll during eight decades of colonization.
The king’s letter, issued on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, acknowledged the historical legacy and pointed out continuing issues of racism and discrimination, though it stopped short of the apology that some, including the United Nations, had asked for.
“I want to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of which is revived today by discriminations that are still too present in our societies,” the king wrote in the letter sent to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The king would, he added, “continue to fight against all forms of racism.”
The letter, which was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès of Belgium urging her country to “look its past in the face,” are part of the European nation’s newfound willingness to address its vicious colonial past.
In an address on Monday, Mr. Tshisekedi said that King Philippe had planned to be at the Independence Day celebrations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that the coronavirus pandemic had intervened.
Mr. Tshisekedi said he was trying to foster a strong relationship with the European country. “I consider it necessary that our common history with Belgium and its people be told to our children in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in Belgium on the basis of scientific work carried out by historians of the two countries,” he said.
“But the most important thing for the future is to build harmonious relations with Belgium,” he added, “because beyond the stigmas of history, the two peoples have been able to build a strong relationship.”
Belgium has long grappled with its legacy in Africa, and protests in the United States against the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police have spurred a global conversation about racism that has given a new intensity to the issue.
In addition to the remarks from the king and prime minister, statues of King Leopold II, whose violent personal rule of what was then the Congo Free State, have been removed from city squares and government buildings across Belgium. Leopold, an ancestor of King Philippe, extracted wealth from the resource-rich territory in central Africa while inflicting immense harm that led to the deaths of millions.
Jean-Luc Crucke, the finance minister for Wallonia, one of Belgium’s three regions, said on Tuesday that a parliamentary commission would begin work in September to scrutinize the country’s colonial past. The panel would allow Belgium to “continue this path” laid out by the king’s letter, which he called “heavy with meaning and more than symbolic.”
Ms. Wilmès, speaking at a commemoration event in Brussels later in the day, acknowledged the troubled history with the Democratic Republic of Congo, “a past imprinted with inequalities and violence against the Congolese.”
Some activists said that the king’s letter did not go far enough because it did not contain an apology and, because he is not a member of the government, it did not formally reflect the views of the Belgian state, which took control of the vast land after King Leopold II and continued colonial exploitation.
Jean Omasombo, a political scientist at the University of Kinshasa and a researcher at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, said that the Belgian state had never recognized its responsibility for colonial atrocities.
“This letter is a first step,” Mr. Omasombo said. “But it is not sufficient.” Mr. Omasombo added that he welcomed the idea of the parliamentary commission but that it should not be “a distraction” from accountability.
Until 1908, Leopold ran the Congo Free State as a venture for personal profit. With an army that included Congolese orphans, the king and his agents drained the land of resources, and then forcibly moved, separated and enslaved families, before being forced to turn control of the area back over to the Belgian state. Congo achieved independence from Belgium in 1960, but the following decades were scarred by civil war.
Almost 10,000 people demonstrated in Brussels against racism this month in the wake of the killing of Mr. Floyd. Some protesters climbed on a statue of King Leopold II and flew a giant flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, chanting “murderer” and “reparations,” repeating a demand for the Belgian state to pay damages to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Belgium’s grappling with its colonial heritage has long been fraught. For decades, Belgians were taught that the country had brought “civilization” to the African continent, and some have defended King Leopold II as a foundational figure. Streets and parks are named after him, and statues of the king can be found throughout the country.
As in so many European nations, racial discrimination is an ongoing issue in Belgium. Recently, a black member of the European Parliament said she had been mistreated by the police in Brussels.
The member, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a 71-year-old Green party representative from Germany, filed a legal complaint this month against Belgian officers who she said had pushed her against a wall and taken away her purse and her mobile phone as she was trying to film what she described as the police “harassing” young black men at a Brussels train station.
According to Ms. Herzberger-Fofana, police officers did not believe her when she said she was a member of the Parliament, despite her identification and a diplomatic passport.
“I consider this as a racist and discriminatory act,” she said in a recent speech at the European Parliament. “We can’t ignore this police violence.”
The police claim she insulted officers and have filed their own complaint. The public prosecutor is investigating the episode.
Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Megan Specia from London. Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.