Belgium Steps Closer to Returning Colonial-Era Remains

Critics, however, say law draft didn't include input from countries of origin
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 6, 2024 5:01 PM CDT
Belgium Steps Closer to Returning Colonial-Era Remains
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Tunatura)

More than 500 sets of human remains taken from ex-Belgian colonies are currently housed at the Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, including the skull of 19th-century Congolese leader Lusinga Iwa Ng'ombe, who was decapitated in a battle with Belgian troops in 1884. Now, draft legislation is vying to have his remains and those of the others returned to their countries of origin, "against the backdrop of a larger debate about Europe's responsibility for the colonial atrocities, reparations, and restitution of plundered heritage," per the New York Times. The paper notes that the return of remains swiped from colonized territories, which typically ended up with private collectors or museums, has been "painfully slow," despite guidelines set up in multiple nations, including Belgium.

There's a bill in the works in Belgium that would regulate such restitution efforts, though it doesn't look like it will see a vote in Parliament until at least June, after the nation's general elections. France is the only other EU country that has similar strict regulations in place regarding such restitution. The move to make things right has been a yearslong one: In 2021, Thomas Dermine, Belgium's secretary of state for science policy, noted, per the Guardian: "Everything that has been acquired through force and violence under illegitimate conditions must in principle be returned." He added, "Objects that have been acquired in an illegitimate fashion by our ancestors, by our grandparents, great-grandparents, do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop."

Last spring, the nation's bioethics panel issued a report that found there was no justification for displaying in museums human remains taken from colonized territories, per the Brussels Times. "Human remains must be treated with respect, dignity, and decency," the report noted. Belgium, by its own research, holds 534 human remains from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. However, there are parameters for what should be returned, and critics from the Congo aren't pleased that experts from their nation weren't consulted in drafting the law. "Belgium cannot unilaterally set the criteria for restitution," one adviser to the Congo's president tells the Times. More here, including a history lesson on Belgian King Leopold II's colonization of "a vast part of Central Africa" in the late 19th century. (More Belgium stories.)

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