The Belgian government presented Tuesday, July 6 its roadmap to restore to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), its former colony, thousands of cultural objects acquired improperly, particularly during the violence committed under the reign of Leopold II between 1885. and 1908.
“The time has come for the return to the Congo of objects looted by Belgium and which belong to the Congolese people”, said Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Science Policy, during a press conference at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, near Brussels.
Speaking of ” starting point “ a process that could last several years, he presented the new legal framework adopted in June by the Belgian government to relieve the collections of this national museum of its objects “Illegitimately acquired”, by the violence of the Belgian soldiers and mercenaries or by “Unfair business transactions”.
“We know very well the sellers of objects and sometimes those who collected them, they are often Westerners, but we have very little information on the Congolese interlocutors who were willingly or by force involved in these acquisitions”, argued the researcher Agnès Lacaille, who works at the museum to identify these ill-gotten goods.
“Organize the transfer of ownership”
Opened in 1898, this place was originally considered by King Leopold II as a propaganda tool, extolling to the Belgians the wide range of the Congo’s riches (masks, musical instruments, but also minerals, insects, etc.).
Renovated in the 2010s, fifty years after independence in 1960, it now intends to offer “A contemporary and decolonized vision of Africa”. But its collections still include objects and human remains brought back in suspicious conditions, several thousand of which could be affected by a restitution according to the management of the museum.
The legal framework provides for the transfer from the public domain of the State to “Private domain” all objects ill-acquired or suspected of being ill-acquired, the only means for them to be eventually transferred to a third party, in this case the Congolese State.
Two lines of work must be pursued in parallel: “Accelerate provenance studies” at the museum (to identify abuses) and engage in discussions with the Congolese authorities to find out their claims.
According to Mr. Dermine, it is“Organize the transfer of ownership”, which can intervene before the handover itself. The object transferred by Belgium and intended to return to the DRC may be stored for a time in Tervuren by paying “A deposit agreement”.
“Dialogue between the two countries is the common thread of the process since the material transfer of objects must be part of a bilateral diplomatic framework”, underlined this French-speaking socialist. Ultimately, a list of objects to be returned could find its place in the legislative text that will result from the work of the commission on the colonial past created in Parliament in 2020.