Belgium and Congo come to agreement to return looted art

Belgium and Congo come to agreement to return looted art
Congolese art in the Afrikamuseum. Credit: Belga

Both the Belgian and the Congolese governments have approved a draft bill and legal framework to return goods that Belgium stole from the Congo during the colonial period.

The bill recognises the legal character of alienability, which means that looted objects will be transferred from the public domain of the Belgian State to the private domain. This will provide the legal basis for the objects to be legally returned.

"Step by step. Without fanfare or trumpets. Working to correct the injustices of the past and to rebuild the brotherhood of peoples," State Secretary for Scientific Policy, Recovery Program and Strategic Investments, Thomas Dermine, said in a statement on Twitter.

These decisions confirm the promise made by Dermine last summer, which was reiterated during a visit to the DRC in November 2021 when he stressed that the “time has come to return the objects that were unlawfully removed from Congo. They belong to the Congolese people."

The draft law provides for the conclusion of bilateral agreements between Belgium and the DRC, defining the modalities of scientific cooperation and the financial means to determine whether an object should be returned.

Process of reconstitution

Both countries will create and jointly finance a scientific commission, which will be responsible for examining the restitution files and issuing reasoned opinions on whether objects should be returned.

An application must be made by either Belgium or the DRC to obtain the restitution of a specific good. If the commission finds the item has been unlawfully acquired, it can be returned at the expense of the Belgian state.

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The focus of this approach is reconstitution: the idea of returning objects to their original state or original ownership, rather than simply compensating the owner for the losses incurred.

As a result, not every piece in Belgian collections that was illegally obtained will be returned immediately. Furthermore, pieces that were obtained legally but are missing in the Congolese heritage can be returned.

Congo was under Belgian rule for almost 80 years, but the most notable period of colonisation was in King Leopold II's reign from 1885 to 1908. During this period, natural resources were plundered whilst brutally exploiting the people of the area.

The country was subsequently named the “Belgian Congo” and remained a colony until the Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence in 1960.

Thousands of these objects are expected to be returned in the coming years.

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