Former EU Humanitarian Commissioner Attempts to Rehabilitate Colonialism

The EU’s former Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid has applauded King Leopold II, the Congo’s late 19th century colonial master whose regime was responsible for between five and 20 million deaths, as a “visionary hero”, writes Francis Donohoe.

Louis Michel, a Belgian former EU commissioner and current prominent Liberal MEP, stated in June that “Leopold II was a true visionary for his time, a hero.”

In the late 19th Century, the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State, effectively the personal property of Leopold II, became infamous for the enslavement and brutal treatment of the Congolese people.

Estimates of the number killed while the region was plundered for its rich resources vary substantially, but researchers believe between 5 million and 20 million died. Among the brutal practices introduced by the Belgian colonists was the amputation of people’s right hands to punish natives for failing to meet rubber quotas.

“Leopold II does not deserve these accusations,” stated Mr Michel.

“The Belgians built railways, schools and hospitals and boosted economic growth. Leopold turned the Congo into a vast labour camp? Really? In those days it was just the way things were done.”

Admitting there were “irregularities,” he said: “We can easily be tempted to exaggerate when it comes to the Congo … I feel instinctively that he was a hero, a hero with ambitions for a small country like Belgium.”

He added: “maybe colonisation was domineering and acquiring more power, but at a certain moment, it brought civilisation.”

Mr Michel left the EU commission in 2009 and is currently the vice-president of the EU’s Joint Parliamentary Assembly with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Mr Michel’s comments came in the same month that a group of legal activists formally requested war-crimes charges be brought against 12 Belgian government officials allegedly responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, a progressive leader who the CIA also attempted to murder.