‘Belgium in danger of missing the train of truth and reconciliation’


Human rights expert Bonny Ibhawoh responds to failure of commission on colonial past

‘Belgium in danger of missing the train of truth and reconciliation’

‘Belgium in danger of missing the train of truth and reconciliation’
‘Belgium in danger of missing the train of truth and reconciliation’

15 mei 2023

Without apologies, reparations are incomplete, believes professor of African history and human rights expert Bonny Ibhawoh. If Belgium wants to offer credible criticism of human rights violations in Africa, it must also be able to name its own past violations. ‘Human rights are no selection menu.’

© Elien Spillebeen

Bonny Ibhawoh is a human rights expert and professor of African history. ‘There is a generation that wants to confront the past. Its demand will only get louder and louder.’

© Elien Spillebeen

Without apologies, reparations are incomplete, believes professor of African history and human rights expert Bonny Ibhawoh. If our country wants to credibly criticise human rights violations in Africa, it must also be able to name its own past violations. ‘Human rights are not a menu of choices.’

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Belgium is missing an opportunity to address the misdeeds of the colonial period, observes Bonny Ibhawoh. At the invitation of the University of Antwerp, the professor of African history and independent human rights expert at the United Nations visited our country in late September.

‘There is a generation that wants to confront the past.’

He spoke to MO* then, and expressed hope for the work of the special parliamentary committee on the ‘colonial past.’ At the time, it seemed to be in a closing phase. Today he learns — with great regret — of the committee’s failure, he informs us.

‘You can keep kicking the can down the road, but that won’t make it disappear. There is a generation that wants to confront the past. If you don’t listen to the people whose parents and grandparents suffered from that past, the tension will only grow. Then the demand will only get louder and louder,’ he warns.

Congo commission ends with sizzle

For more than two years, the special parliamentary committee examined our heavy colonial legacy. Its mandate was to examine this past and its impact, and make recommendations for the future — an intensive process that ended in a sizzle last month. There was no unanimity within the Vivaldi majority to vote on the 128 recommendations.

Disillusionment and bewilderment among bereaved families, activists and experts in our country was great. Two weeks before the scheduled vote, Wouter De Vriendt (Groen), the chairman of the committee, had only received amendment proposals from N-VA and Vlaams Belang. Among other things, those parties did not like official apologies from the House of Representatives. N- VA asked for additional advice on the possible legal consequences of official apologies.

Cd&v, through Jan Briers, still responded at the time that that question had been sufficiently answered by the many experts received in the committee. ‘How many more experts did they need to hear?’ The fear of compensation claims was unjustified, legal experts had already explained.

Yet two weeks later, the majority parties cd&v, Open Vld and MR decided not to take part in the vote on the final conclusions. Excuses suddenly turned out not to be a suitable instrument after all, Jan Briers said. Members of the liberal parties left the room even before the vote.

De Vriendt finally worked out a modified version of the recommendations in a parliamentary resolution, without the proposal for official apologies by the chamber. That was tabled separately as a second resolution. This makes the chances of survival of the apology proposal very slim.

According to Professor Ibhawoh, our country is in danger of missing the train of what he calls ‘the century of truth and reconciliation.’ Not coincidentally, that will also be the title of his next book. With it, he underpins his optimistic view that the 21st century will not be marked by the decline of universal human rights, but by a growing resistance to inequality and growing need to confront past crimes.

‘Official apologies are, in my opinion, an important part of the reconciliation process,’ is his response to Wouter De Vriendt’s initiative to split the recommendations into two (see box) to give the remaining proposals another chance of survival. ‘This acknowledges that individuals and communities were harmed. Without apologies, recovery is incomplete.’

Fear of damage claims or financial consequences of guilty pleas should not be an obstacle, he believes. ‘This decision says something about the moral conscience of the nation and its leaders. Because of the failure of the parliamentary committee, Belgium is choosing to deny and ignore calls for justice and reparation.’


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While the colonial past may seem like a closed chapter to some, or a legacy of a previous generation, we must still look the pain in the eye. ‘Justice for these victims cannot be postponed indefinitely. Every generation will demand it until it is achieved.’

No menu of choices

Today, Ibhawoh has been a professor at Canada’s McMaster University for more than 16 years. He is also director of the Centre for Human Rights & Restorative Justice there.

Being schooled in both history and law, he says, explains why he likes to explore the intersections between history, justice and society. He has already published several books, including on imperialism and human rights and the history of human rights in Africa. ‘Denouncing human rights violations is not cherrypicking,’ he explains.

Ubuntu has made the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a more powerful tool

He illustrates his holistic approach to human rights with this example: ‘When I presented my book on the history of human rights in Africa to my African colleagues, they were mostly very enthusiastic. Except for the chapter on sexual minority rights on the continent. In several countries, this topic was sensitive.’

‘Then I said that human rights cannot be used as a choice list. For example, you cannot defend them only when the rights of heterosexuals are suppressed, and not when those of LGBT people are trampled on. Similarly, you cannot remain silent about the human rights violations that took place in a colonial context and only speak about the violations that are happening in Africa today.’

A touch of ubuntu

‘I paint with a rough brush here out of necessity,’ he laughs, ‘because obviously the continent is huge and extremely diverse.’ But we can also learn an extraordinary amount from that diverse continent. ‘And to be clear: not only in terms of human rights violations.’

‘The continent, of course, is often associated with violations.’ For a moment, didactically, he takes a step back. ‘I certainly don’t want to sweep those under the carpet, terrible crimes happen.’ But Africa is also historically a place of production of human rights knowledge, the researcher stresses. ‘Perhaps recommend to your readers the fantastic book Africa and the Shaping of Human Rights (Derrick M. Nault, Oxford University Press, 2020, ed.).’

‘I could give several examples of how the continent has helped shape the interpretation and application of human rights. But if I want to give one example to your audience, it is this experience of reconciliation and truth commissions. By the way, you see these popping up all over the West. The European Union today also recommends this practice as a way of scrutinising historical discrimination against minorities.’

‘In times when human rights violations were so often pointed at Africa, people are now looking to that continent to learn.’

South Africa did not invent the truth and reconciliation commission after apartheid, but it did redefine it, Ibhawoh clarifies.

‘Before that, such commissions were very legal instruments. But Nelson Mandela put a cleric in charge, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who gave a very humane interpretation to this instrument. He added the African philosophy ubuntu, you could say.’

As befits a professor, he explains how the world also once looked at the African Declaration of Human Rights somewhat strangely. After a European and American charter, an African charter on human rights as well as peoples came into force in 1986.

The addition of peoples was unique. The fact that not only rights of individuals and peoples were described, but also duties, was also remarkable. This fitted within the idea of ubuntu, the philosophy sometimes summarised as ‘I am because we are.’ The belief in an interpersonal connection emphasises the mutual connection between the individual and the group.

This same influence of ubuntu has also made the truth and reconciliation commission a more powerful tool, Professor Ibhawoh believes.

Based in Africa

A few years ago, Canada too established a national truth and reconciliation commission, founded on knowledge from South Africa, he explains. ‘In times when human rights violations were so often pointed at Africa, people were now looking to that continent to learn. I found that refreshing.’

Canada sent judges, social assistants and psychologists to South Africa to learn about how truth commissions work. Today, Canada has set up its own commission, on that model, to investigate abuses in boarding schools for indigenous children.

What the two countries shared as a result is that the process became much more than a legal process. ‘Inspired by South Africa, you also saw in Canada that conversations took place in schools, libraries and other public spaces.’

The very emotional scenes gave people a chance to share their stories in the first place. Therein lies the power of recovery, Ibhawoh believes. ‘Many Canadians were only hearing history told for the first time from the perspective of indigenous people.’

In Canada, this public process then led to a national action plan. ‘Next, each sector in Canadian society must now create its own plan to rectify historical injustice in the long and the short term.’

The reckoning

That he sees similar initiatives in different places around the world makes Ibhawoh hopeful. On the same day that news broke in Belgium that the parliamentary committee was too divided to vote, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the Dutch historical part in the slave trade.

© Elien Spillebeen

Ibhawoh is an optimist when it comes to the future: ‘The world is moving towards more justice.’

© Elien Spillebeen

‘The world does move towards greater justice.’

‘People may not notice these steps. But the progress is there.’

Again, Ibhawoh pleads for optimism: ‘When the British king died 70 years ago, some African journalists and opinion makers in local newspapers described the sovereign’s responsibility in the colonial system. They were arrested.’

‘Recently, after the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, critical questions were raised about the royal family’s colonial legacy. You can no longer imagine people being arrested for that. This change in public debates has come about by citizens themselves, from the bottom up.’

And that is good news. In doing so, he wants to counter the pessimism that human rights would be in decline worldwide. ‘People today perhaps invoke ethics and a sense of justice more than human rights,’ he says.

Contrary to the crippling terror illustrated by our politicians, whether instigated by the royal family or not, the whole process is just less legal than they fear. ‘It’s more about people claiming their place in the world,’ he says.

‘Social media certainly has its negative side too, but it is also powerful because it gives a voice to groups that were historically marginalised. That’s what I call the reckoning that will be made anyway.’

About inequality, not race

Resistance, the demand for a confrontation with a past of inequality, is perhaps too quickly simplified into a racial issue in the West, he fears. ‘Such resistance eventually arises where inequality becomes too great. That call for justice often does not sound until the next generation.’

The researcher also sees this in his native Nigeria. ‘The oil extracted in the Niger Delta did not benefit the population itself, but the majority in the north and west. Well, the people of the delta say one day “We don’t take this anymore.” We mine, and only get pollution in return. Young people no longer pick up what their parents might still have done. If nothing changes, we will sabotage the pipelines, they say.’

‘You also see this happening in India, where groups that were discriminated against for generations are demanding to be part of the conversation. Women in the Middle East also demanding change.’ He provides other examples.

‘Those who look at the broader global picture will perhaps understand that this debate about the colonial legacy is part of a global evolution,’ he concludes. ‘The world does move towards greater justice.’

Elien Spillebeen is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.