As debates about repatriation of cultural objects rage across Europe, Belgium said Saturday that it would transfer ownership of hundreds of objects from the Democratic Republic of Congo that were illegally added to its national holdings. The promise to do so is a major step in a country where conversations about histories of colonialism have historically been given less weight.

Promised by the new Belgian government, which took office in October 2020, this is said to be the country’s start to dealing with its colonial past in Congo.

Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s state secretary of scientific policy, was the author of the proposal. According to Dermine, the next step is to call for an official bilateral agreement with the Democratic Republic of Congo, to take a coordinated and shared approach to the question of objects acquired in an illegitimate manner during the colonial era.

“The question is not whether they should stay in Belgium. They don’t belong to us,” Dermine said during a press conference in Brussels.

The artifacts will be stored at the International museum that opened in Kinshasa in 2019.T

he largest repository of objects stolen in a colonial context is at the Royal Museum of Central Africa at Tervuren. The museum acknowledges in a statement on its website that “it is not normal for such a large part of African cultural heritage to be found in the West.”

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In June 2020, The Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated its sixtieth anniversary of independence after being colonized by Belgium since 1885. It is the date when the Belgians and other Europeans decide to divide and exploit Africa at the infamous Congress of Berlin. This congress was also known as The Partition of Africa.

The Congress, in effect, allocated Congo to King Philippe’s ancestor, Belgian King Leopold II, who began ruling Congo as his personal property that year. However, his harsh labor policies, designed to maximize the production of natural rubber, is a symbol of one of the most vicious human rights violation over the last 150 years.

His brutality, which include mutilation and rape, and waves of lethal disease led to the deaths of up to 20 million people. His numerous, well-documented atrocities led to Europe-wide pressure to end his personal regime, and in 1908, Belgium annexed Congo, and thereafter ruled it as a colony.