“Brave little Belgium” or “too little too late”? Belgian apologies for colonisation from a communications perspective

At the start of the month Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, said sorry.

Sorry on behalf of the nation.

He apologised for the kidnapping of mixed-race children at the end of Belgian colonial rule in Africa. Michel gave a speech in parliament, detailing the actions of the Belgian state in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi: the colonial policy of segregation, the forcible abduction just before the 1960 wave of independence. He discussed the harm caused: identity loss, separation from family, from African names and cultures; leaving children without a past. Then he moved on to the measures the government has taken in order to document the victims’ story and finally, he explicitly apologised.

From a communications perspective, was this an effective apology? The Prime Minister sought to project that he understood what the colonial government had done wrong, he listed the measures the government is taking to make things better and, importantly, he said sorry.

Previous apologies about Belgium’s colonial past have been less contrite. In 2002, then Minister Louis Michel (father of the current Prime Minister) apologised on behalf of the government for the involvement of the Belgian state in the murder of the first democratically elected leader of the DRC. In a subsequent interview with adult erotica publication P-Magazine, a bizarre choice of outlet, he went on to say that King Leopold was a visionary and that Belgian misdeeds in Congo had been exaggerated. As recently as last February, the UN called on the country to apologise for the horrors of colonisation. Prime Minister Charles Michel called the UN report “very strange” and noted that other European countries also have a history of colonisation.

While the current stance of the Belgian government is more remorseful, the singling out of the case of the abduction of children leaves open what the attitude of the Belgian state is towards the rest of its colonial past.

This selective apology highlights that for key decision-makers and public figures, sorry is often the hardest word. Indeed, insincere or stunted admissions of fault can be counterproductive. An appropriate one, however, can be a powerful tool to express empathy and help set a broader narrative underlying the apology.

The difference between an apology done right and a botched or absent one can be enormous; it is the difference between your reputation being drawn safely away from a crash or seeing it dragged through the mud.

By Leonor Díaz-Córdova and Tobias Hautekiet 

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