Global Policy Forum

Rwanda Trial Opens Belgians' Eyes


By Colette Braeckman

June 7, 2001

The Belgian public has been captivated by the trial of four Rwandans - two nuns, a professor and a businessman - who have been found guilty of taking part in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The eight-week trial has focused on the four individuals, but it has also exposed the genocide itself.

At a deeper level, it has raised questions in Belgium about the former colonial power's responsibility for later atrocities. An opinion poll published by the daily Le Soir shows that almost half of Belgians do not begrudge the trial taking place at the country's expense. More importantly, the poll shows that more than ever, Belgians support sending out troops to intervene in cases of massive violations of human rights. Forty-two percent of the respondents criticised Belgium's decision to pull out of Rwanda in the early days of the genocide - a decision that consequently paralysed the UN operation - and 69% think Belgian courts have the right, if not the duty, to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity or genocide.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel has been an active supporter of holding the Rwanda trial in Belgium and won the approval of 85% of those questioned.


Could this remarkable change in Belgian public opinion be connected to guilt over 80 years of Belgian colonialism? It seems more likely that that the highly publicised and much analysed story of Belgium's failure in Rwanda in 1994 has created more guilt than the country's colonial past. Everybody remembers that the assassination of 10 Belgian UN soldiers, just as the genocide began, triggered the pullout of the entire UN mission. This is now seen by many Belgians as a betrayal of the Rwandan people. This sense of guilt has been nurtured by an eight-month commission, during which Belgian parliamentarians examined the country's responsibility and the events before and during the genocide.

Last year, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt went to Kigali himself to deliver a public apology to the Rwandans for having abandoned them. The parliamentary commission on Rwanda and the trial have exposed the deep connections that were formed after the end of the colonial rule between Rwanda and major power groups in Belgium including the Catholic Church, the Christian Social Democratic party, the army and some intellectuals. The trial has demonstrated how, and to what great extent, the nuns on trial were protected and supported by these groups. It was a growing public awareness of the issues that finally led to the trial.

The trial was made possible by a law passed in 1993 and never before implemented. It allows Belgian courts to try suspected perpetrators of crimes against humanity, even if the crimes were committed in other countries.

Colonial Past

The public has indeed become sensitive to Belgium's failures and responsibility in the Rwandan genocide. It might now be ready to tackle the older issue of colonisation, as a parliamentary commission is appointed to examine Belgium's role in the 1960 assassination of the former Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Initial inquiry results show that both Belgium's government and its royal palace wanted Lumumba ousted, and even funded opposition forces that were determined to eliminate the elected leader.

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