Belgium has said it will look into returning all goods and works of art from the colonial period, which could result in thousands of objects being returned in the coming years.
The decision was announced by State Secretary for Scientific Policy, Recovery Program and Strategic Investments, Thomas Dermine, during a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alongside Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation, Meryame Kitir.
"The objects illegally acquired by our ancestors do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop," he said in the Congolese capital Kinshasa on Wednesday evening, in a speech to the Senate and Parliament Speaker, according to Belga news agency.
"We must adopt a position from a Congolese perspective: to reconstitute the cultural identity of a people, a perspective that has been deprived for too long of the memory, creativity and spirituality of its ancestors."
This means Belgium will focus on bringing objects back to their original state or original ownership, rather than simply focussing on "restitution," or the compensation for the losses incurred.
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This promise was previously made during the announcement of the "innovative approach" to the restitution of looted art, developed by Dermine in July, which he will be presenting during his visit to the country.
Dermine added that, as far as he was concerned, the time had come to return the objects looted from the Congo by Belgium during its political ruling of the country, mostly during the Congo Free State period from 1885 to 1908, when it became Belgian King Leopold II's private property, but also following the country's independence from colonisation until 1960.
"This is important and very symbolic because it allows us to recognise that the colonial regime was a fundamentally unequal political model," Dermine said, stressing that Belgium is advocating for a dialogue with Congo regarding the return of these goods.
The return of thousands of objects
Most of these objects, currently in the possession of one of Belgium's federal institutions, are located in the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, which comprises more than 130,000 pieces, 85% of which come from Congo, but also in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels.
The existing agreement is yet to be translated into a bill, which may be approved before the end of the year. Upon approval of the bill, talks with the Congolese authorities will start.
In the meantime, a study is ongoing, which should bring clarity about the origin of all objects and art, and whether they were looted or not, and what conditions are needed to return these goods.
During Belgium's visit to Congo, Kitir will be focussing on women's rights, gender equality and the fight against gender-based violence.
Eerste stop in Kinshasa & meteen een belangrijke.Via @Enabel_en_RDC zetten we een nieuw zorgcentrum op voor slachtoffers van seksueel geweld. Ze kunnen er herstellen & worden begeleid om actie te nemen zodat daders gestraft worden. De strijd tegen seksueel geweld voeren we samen. pic.twitter.com/3qopO8ajii— Meryame Kitir (@MeryameKitir) November 24, 2021
Kitir's tweet reads: "First stop in Kinshasa and immediately an important one. Together with Enabel, we are setting up a new care centre for victims of sexual violence, where they can recover and will be guided to take action so that perpetrators are punished. We are fighting sexual violence together."