Patrick Dewael, speaker of the federal parliament, spoke at the weekend about his thoughts on the parliamentary commission planned to discuss Belgium’s colonial past in Congo.
Parliament decided last week to hold hearings on the troubled history of Belgium in the Congo, at the time of King Leopold II and after. The proposal obtained the support of all parties but Vlaams Belang.
The details still have to be worked out, including whether the matter will be dealt with by the standing committee on foreign affairs or by a special committee, and party presidents and officials will work on the set-up over the summer.
However Dewael (Open VLD) went on the VRT’s Sunday politics show De Zevende Dag yesterday to reveal his own thinking as a former party president and Flemish minister-president, current elder statesman and someone with experience of standing and special committee procedure.
Since the idea was first floated, the planned commission has been likened to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa in 1996 to help the country transition from apartheid to free democratic government.
The comparison is not particularly apt. The TRC held more than 1,000 sessions in public and private, and was principally concerned with events in living memory involving witnesses who were still alive.
The Belgian commission, however, needs to have elements of both truth and reconciliation if it is to achieve any worthwhile goal, Dewael said.
At the moment, the emphasis has been on the need for Belgium – and specifically King Philippe – to apologise to Congo for the horrors of colonial rule there. The call for an apology has been most recently raised by Pierre Kompany, the Congolese-born mayor of Ganshoren and father of the Red Devil captain Vincent.
But for Dewael, “gratuitous apologies” do not go far enough.
“The truth is shocking, and there has never been an extensive debate in parliament. That is essential before there are apologies,” he told the programme.
The details still have to be worked on, and Dewael was reluctant to get ahead of the party presidents, including his own, who will have the job of creating the terms of the commission.
“I’m not going to anticipate what it should look like, but I think that, apart from any apologies or excuses, there should be a number of framing measures,” he said.
“The committee should also consider how any reparations will be dealt with if the government acknowledges an error. Anyone who makes a mistake, says our legal code, must compensate for the damage.”