How do parties negotiate decolonization? The case of Belgium

In this second contribution to our special series on ‘Transitional Justice and Historical Redress, Prof. Valérie Rosoux, Research Director at the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research, looks back on the experience of the Belgian Special Parliamentary Commission on the Colonial Past. In particular, she reflects on the role of emotions and intergenerational transmission of memory in negotiations on post-colonial legacies.

The Belgian case is emblematic in four regards. First, the Belgian colonial period is often depicted as a kind of textbook case because of the degree of brutalization reached. Since the publication of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, King Leopold II has become one of the symbols of colonial brutality. Unsurprisingly, his statues were systematically targeted by the protests against racism that followed the death of Georges Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Besides the extent of colonial violence, the Belgian case is particularly significant for a second reason: the political nature of the Commission. It is composed of 19 Belgian MPs who represent all the elected political parties from the far-right to the far-left. Some were strongly in favor of the work being done by the Commission, while others were entirely opposed to it. Third, the mandate of most commissions put in place to come to terms with colonial past is typically related to a particular aspect of this past. In the Belgian case, the mandate of the Parliamentary Commission was extremely broad. It did not only concern past injustices (that is, the crimes committed in Congo from 1885 to 1960, and in Burundi and Rwanda from 1919 to 1962), but also contemporary injustices (that is, current discrimination against Afro-descendants in Belgium). This twofold ambition allows us to observe the scope and limits of a maximalist approach. And the fourth reason that justifies the emblematic nature of the Belgian case: its unexpected outcome – or rather lack of outcome. After two and a half years of readings, hearings and negotiations at all levels, the members of the Parliamentary Commission failed to reach a political deal.

Intergenerational transmission of memory

The notion of “generation” has been boradly studied in the sociology field. Yet it has been far less studied in the field of transitional justice. However, the involvement of two, if not three, successive generations has a critical impact on the negotiation processes related to historical injustices. When multiple generations are involved, parties rarely agree about what qualifies as injustice. Moreover, the mere passage of time has no magical effect on conflicting notions of justice. On the contrary, a succession of crises and tensions accentuates entrenched positions concerning what are presented as historical grievances. Therefore, it seems useful to better understand the consequences of explicit or implicit loyalty to those who are considered – by one party at least – to have been unfairly treated.

The Belgian case raises the following question: does loyalty based on tragic past events systematically prevent negotiating parties from rapprochement? The absence of a final political agreement between members of the Special Commission shows that even if most parties take into consideration the intergenerational dimension of the colonial legacy, most of them resist the possibility of reparations to the victims’ descendants. The significance of emotions such as guilt, humiliation, anger, hatred and sorrow explains to a large extent why negotiating justice in a post-colonial context cannot be reduced to any other form of bargaining. As well as considering rational and moral dimensions (which remains critical), an understanding of the negotiation processes related to historical injustices requires insight into psychological processes that are not always taken seriously in transitional justice. In this regard, practitioners and clinicians recall that family memories are often passed on to new generations below the surface of conscious cognition and reflection.

The notion of “transgenerational transmission” of trauma is admittedly debatable. Some skeptical voices argue that children of victims do not systematically inherit their injuries. However, even if we do not consider that “traumatic memories” are literally passed on to one’s children and other loved ones, numerous studies in social psychology demonstrate that the second and third generations still have strong feelings of shame, guilt or victimization, especially when past injustices have not been adequately addressed by their parents’ generation.

The duration of the observed processes raises multiple questions for practice and theory: What is the time frame? Should we consider immediate descendants of victims or adopt a longer-term approach? If we try to assess the long-term impact of colonization, how can we detect emotional and even unconscious processes of transmission between generations? How can we measure the transformation of representations from one generation to the next? Each of these questions demonstrates the need to improve the methods currently available to build bridges between the fields of negotiation, memory studies, and transitional justice. From a practical perspective, one of the most delicate challenges is to convince all sides that they can reach an agreement for the sake of current and future generations without feeling “complicit” in betraying the memory of their missing relatives. In this respect, negotiation processes can constitute crucial points of departure, but not definitive points of closure.

Conflicting Notions of Justice

Beside the significance of the intergenerational transmission of memory, the Belgian case shows how central the notion of justice is. Most parties referred to justice as one of the main goals of the Commission. Similarly, external observers frequently presented the Parliamentary initiative as Belgium’s opportunity of addressing the injustices caused by its colonial past. So, justice and fairness issues were decisive in structuring the talks in the Parliament even though the official mandate of the Commission did not even refer to this notion. The main objective which was explicitly highlighted in the mandate adopted by the Parliament was reconciliation – not justice.

If we consider the opinions collected throughout the process (from the initial consultations in the fall 2020 to the last political negotiations in December 2022), we can distinguish between two main attitudes towards colonialism. Interestingly, both attitudes define their position in terms of justice. The first attitude insists on the lasting effects of historical injustices. It considers that past wrongdoings undermine the legitimacy of contemporary resource holdings, which justifies the need for reparations. The second attitude puts the emphasis on the inappropriateness of the use of current moral standards to judge the past. For Belgians who came back from Congo in 1960 and for most of their descendants, it would be unfair to be judged on the basis of moral standards that they were not familiar with.

The gap between these attitudes resonated in the political sphere. On the one hand, left-wing political parties call for an official apology (depicted as a sine qua non condition) and an equitable redistribution of resources. On the other, most right-wing political parties categorically refuse the idea of retrospective responsibility. Even if all parties used the language of justice (from far-right to far-left parties), there was no zone of potential agreement between those who associate justice with redress and reparations, and those who do not even accept the appropriateness of apologies.

To the spokespersons of Afro-descendants’ associations, this second attitude demonstrates that nothing has changed since colonial times. To them, official apologies are necessary, but not sufficient. They can correct a public record and assign responsibility. However, they may seem insincere and even obsequious if they are not accompanied by direct and immediate actions to stop current discriminations.

What’s next?

At the end of this proceeding, it is difficult to deny that the whole process actually polarized the debate. The disappointment is massive. Yet, the absence of political recommendations cannot undo what has been done. An official debate has started – more than 150 witnesses, experts, and militants shared their views and expertise within the Parliament. Their words and experiences were transcribed and videotaped. The same number of people (official representatives, academic experts, artists, representatives of civil society organizations, and students) met with the Belgian delegation of MPs who went to Kinshasa, Bujumbura, and Kigali in September 2022. Their expectations were also systematically notified and reported to the Parliament. Their messages and their legitimate hope cannot be erased. 

Many lessons need to be stressed to stimulate better design for future bodies in charge of dealing with the colonial past. The first concerns the political nature of the process. Is the choice of a Parliamentary Commission appropriate? The arguments in favor of this choice were mainly twofold: (1) the legitimacy of all members of the Commission could hardly be put into question since they were all elected by Belgian citizens; (2) the official framework that characterizes the Parliament was a signal of political will. However, the ultimate and decisive role played by the presidents of most political parties demonstrates the pitfalls of this kind of process. The gap between the experience of most MPs who have been participating in hearings and debates for more than two years and the inflexible decisions made by various presidents of political parties (who did not attend one single session of the Commission) is striking. Beyond all the limits of the special Commission, it is hard to deny the critical plus value of testimonies and analyses shared during the hearings. Their impact was not magical and systematically transformative, but several MPs explained that the process stimulated a kind of introspection and reflexivity.

The second lesson I would like to emphasize concerns timing and duration. The mandate of the Belgian Commission was paradoxically maximalist in terms of goals and minimalist in terms of time, resources allocated to the commission, and outreach efforts. The planned mission implied the analysis of both past and current injustices related to the colonial past in Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda, a scenario to deal with the past fruitfully, and the promotion of a shared society that favors reconciliation. To attain these ambitious objectives, the Commission had a bit more than two years. However, this process requires many adjustments. Changing beliefs, representations, and emotions take time. Acknowledgment of the violence that was inflicted does not happen overnight. The ability to actively listen, understand, digest, and adapt, implies self-awareness. Implementing a scenario based on equity and equality does not take months but years.

The work of memory related to the negotiation of post-colonial legacies is like a mountain walk. It implies long and slow efforts, but allows for widening the horizon to reach incredible views – from which one can observe not one, but several, valleys.

The starting point of this article is two successive participant observations in the framework of the Special Commission set up by the Belgian federal Parliament in July 2020. The first one took place from August 2020 to November 2021 (panel of 10 experts in charge of writing the initial report, 689 p.), and the second started in February 2021 until the end of the Special Commission’s mandate in December 2022 (panel of 3 experts in charge of writing the final report, 112 p.).


Valerie Rosoux is a Research Director at the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS). She teaches International Negotiation, Politics of Memory, and Transitional Justice at UCLouvain (Belgium). She has a Licence in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Political Sciences. She is a member of the Belgian Royal Academy. Since 2021, she is a Max Planck Law Fellow. She was a member of the two group of experts appointed by the Belgian Special Parliamentary Commission to assist the commission in its work..

Transitional Justice & Historical Redress

This article is part of the special series Transitional Justice & Historical Series, a project born of a joint collaboration between the Leuven Institute of Criminology and Avocats Sans Frontières.