• Belgium
    Belgium Begins to Confront Its Brutal Colonial Past in Congo
    Black Lives Matter protests in France and the United Kingdom have intensified the domestic debate over their countries’ past colonialism and present racism. Demonstrators, numbering in the thousands, have toppled memorials to historical figures associated with the slave trade and with colonial empires. In June, the protests spread to Belgium, with a crowd of about 10,000 in Brussels demonstrating against racism. On June 30, Belgian King Philippe, in a letter to Felix Tshisekedi, president of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), expressed his "regret" over his country’s exploitation of DRC. King Philippe stopped short of an apology. Under Belgium's system of governance, an apology would be deemed a "political act" and could be done only by parliament. However, in a statement following the King’s letter, the new prime minister, Sophie Wilmes, urged Belgians "to look its past in the face." For his part, President Tshisekedi, in remarks commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of DRC’s independence, called for closer ties between the two countries, but based on a common understanding of history: "I consider it necessary that our common history with Belgium and its people be told to our children in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in Belgium on the basis of scientific work carried out by historians of the two countries." Unlike his predecessors, King Philippe has never visited Congo. He had expected to attend the commemoration, but COVID-19 precluded travel. A rapprochement with its former colonizer has been part of DRC’s foreign policy since Tshisekedi was sworn in on January 24, 2019. In his first official trip to Europe, Tshisekedi traveled to Belgium in September 2019 for a four-day visit to turn the page on the poor relations between the two countries that existed under his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. The Belgians and other Europeans at the 1885 Congress of Berlin have much to regret. 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, without reference to the constitutional government in Brussels. His harsh labor policies were designed to maximize the production of natural rubber. His brutality and waves of lethal disease led to the deaths of up to 20 million people (though some estimates are far lower). 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. Nevertheless, Leopold II still has admirers in Belgium, especially among the older generation. He had long been seen as having brought "civilization" to Africa. A parliamentary vote on a formal apology to the DRC might prove controversial for the country's fragile politics.
  • United States
    George Floyd’s Murder Revives Anti-Colonialism in Western Europe
    The murder of George Floyd by a policeman and the ensuing protests against racism and police brutality in the United States have ignited similar protests in Europe. Large crowds, especially in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium, are demanding public acknowledgment of the links among slavery, European colonialism, and contemporary racism. European protesters, perhaps in solidarity with Americans, have borrowed anti-police rhetoric. But, with the exception of the French, by and large, European protestors tie racial abuse in their own countries not so much to the police but to the persistence of the glorification of colonialism or, at best, a collective amnesia about its effects. In the United States, Black Lives Matter protestors are calling for the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, and many have since been removed. In Europe, protestors are calling for the removal of statues glorifying men made famous or rich by the slave trade and colonialism. In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II, whose personal, brutal rule of Congo may have caused the deaths of up to half of the territory’s population, are being defaced, and some have been removed. In the United Kingdom, protestors pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, (1636–1721), an official of the Royal Africa Company that transported an estimated 84,000 Africans to slavery in the Caribbean and the mainland British colonies, perhaps 20,000 of whom died in the notorious “Middle Passage.” His extensive, local philanthropy was built on the profits of the slave trade. A statue of Winston S. Churchill opposite the Houses of Parliament was vandalized because of his advocacy of the empire and colonialism, and his personal racism. There are calls in the United Kingdom for the erasure of Cecil Rhodes’s name from public institutions. Student-led protests, dubbed #RhodesMustFall, led to the removal of his statue in 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. However, there is probably greater public support for the removal of reminders of slavery in the United States than there is in Europe with respect to colonialism. Already in the United Kingdom, there has been a backlash against attacks on national heroes such as Winston Churchill. Though Britain, France, and the other European states abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, they nevertheless carved up much of the (non-white) world among themselves. In Europe as in America, racism often provided the intellectual justification for colonial rule and white supremacy, and accounted for their popularity among the general public. Reflecting little understanding of Charles Darwin and “natural selection,” the common presumption was that each "race," mostly defined by skin color and other obvious physical characteristics, had an objective, fundamental "character," and there was a "natural" hierarchy with whites at the top, blacks, at the bottom, and "browns" (mostly in Britain’s Indian Empire) in between. America is now attempting to come to terms with how slavery and racial segregation remains central to the Black experience today. In a similar vein, European colonialism is central to understanding African countries, almost all of which were former European colonies. American legal emancipation in 1865 and the ending of legal segregation a century later did not erase the lasting damage they caused. African independence after 1960 has not undone the consequences of colonialism. As influential Nigerian academic Peter Ekeh wrote, “Our post-colonial present has been fashioned by our colonial past.” The anti-colonial dimension in the European demonstrations ignited by George Floyd are a welcome acknowledgement of that reality.
  • United States
    Which Countries Have the Highest Voter Turnout?
    At 56%, voter turnout in the United States trails most developed countries. Here's where voter turnout is highest—and what countries have done to increase participation.
  • Russia
    Did Russia Really Dump Its U.S. Debt?
  • Women and Women's Rights
    Women Around the World: This Week
    Welcome to “Women Around the World: This Week,” a series that highlights noteworthy news related to women and U.S. foreign policy. This week’s post, covering March 1 to March 9, was compiled with support from Alexandra Bro and Anne Connell. Paraguay criminalizes femicide The government of Paraguay enacted a new law that criminalizes femicide, obstetric violence, and online abuse against women. In addition, the law creates a standardized system to collect data on gender-based violence and provides support for survivors, including free legal assistance, skills training, and access to shelters. The measure aims to combat high rates of violence against women in Paraguay, including 49 femicides and over 13,000 reported cases of domestic violence last year—the highest rate on record. By adopting the new law, Paraguay joined seventeen other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have criminalized femicide. Notwithstanding these legal reforms, a wave of protests against gender-based violence has spread across the region, fueled by the global #MeToo movement, with protesters using hashtags #YoTambien and #NiUnaMas. Iraq convicts women abetting ISIS A court in Iraq sentenced fifteen women of Turkish nationality to death last week after they were found guilty of joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State group as brides of fighters. The women were convicted of a range of offenses, including illegally entering Iraq and providing the group with material aid and logistical support. They are among the 500 women initially detained in December on suspicion of being affiliated with militants. Recent analyses confirm the significant role some women play in sustaining ISIS and other extremist organizations, including by recruiting new members, raising the next generation of fighters, and, increasingly, serving as operational agents who can avoid detection by security forces. Belgium issues conviction under “sexism law” A Belgian court convicted a man this week for sexist comments made to a female police officer, the first conviction of its kind under the 2014 Belgian law criminalizing sexist actions in public spaces. The man, who told a female police officer questioning him for jaywalking that “being a police officer is not a job for women,” was fined €3,000 and could face one month in prison. Belgium’s legal code defines sexism as a gesture or action that is intended to express contempt or suggest that someone is inferior because of their gender. Belgium is not alone in taking legal measures against sexism and harassment: Portugal recently made verbal sexual abuse a crime, Peru passed a bill defining and penalizing harassment, and French lawmakers are currently considering a law to fine men for harassing women in public.
  • Belgium
    Brussels Bombings Threaten European Unity
    The twin bombings in Brussels have exposed the need for closer European security cooperation at the same time that anti-EU political forces are on the rise, says expert Ian Lesser.