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King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for abuses committed during the country’s colonisation of the Democratic Republic of Congo Image Credit: British Museum

For most of the last four centuries of the last millennium, the imperial powers of Western Europe treated much of the rest of the world as theirs — an opportunity to be exploited, places to be plundered, peoples to be enslaved or indentured into servitude and humiliation.

Indeed, that colonial outlook extended into the latter decades of the last century, and it is only then that these former colonies or occupied lands managed to strike out on the road of independence and self-determination. Whether it be across South America, Africa, much of Asia or islands spread from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the great distances of the Pacific, peoples have endured the burden of a colonial past, a heavy history that still casts a shadow today.

But at least now there is a recognition that these former imperial powers have a duty to make amends for acts and wrongs perpetrated in their name far from their shores. Last week, King Philippe of Belgium, in a historic visit to Democratic Republic of Congo, said that his country’s rule over the vast central African land had inflicted pain and humiliation through a mixture of “paternalism, discrimination and racism”.

In a speech to the DRC’s parliament, Philippe amplified remorse he first voiced two years ago over Belgium’s brutal colonial rule — an era that historians say saw millions die, mostly to ensure raw rubber was produced in vast quantities to power industrial growth at home.

But words of apology are not enough. Yes, they are welcome — but cheap when uttered without proper recompense for the riches gained through the exploitation and servitude of so many for so long.

Whether it be the United Kingdom for its treatment of peoples in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kenya — or wherever the world map was coloured pink by its imperial presence, there are apologies due.

So too France for its role in North Africa, so too in former Indo-China, in Algeria where its actions are still remembered by a generation who gained freedom; Portugal, where Africa and South American nations were exploited; the Netherlands for its misadventures across Southeast Asia and the Caribbean; Germany in east Africa and beyond; Spain, and its role in the Americas and beyond.

Setting the record straight now, along with concrete measures like easing the debt burden on developing nations, would be useful. Far more useful indeed than hollow words that are little and late.