Belgium takes down statue, king regrets colonial violence

A vandalized statue of King Leopold II of Belgium is removed on the 60th anniversary of Congolese Independence, Ghent, June 30, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2020

Belgium takes down statue, king regrets colonial violence

  • King Philippe expressed regret for the violence carried out by Belgium when it ruled over what is now Congo
  • King Leopold II, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom

BRUSSELS: Belgium confronted its colonial past and looked toward reconciliation Tuesday, with the king expressing regret for the violence carried out by the country when it ruled over what is now Congo. Later in the day, the bust of a former monarch held responsible for the death of millions of Africans was taken off public display.
As Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo, King Philippe’s words had resounding significance since none of his predecessors went so far as to convey remorse.
In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, Philippe stopped short of issuing a formal apology, but proclaimed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo.
The removal of King Leopold II’s statue took place only hours after Philippe’s letter was published. The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.
Following a short ceremony punctuated by readings, Leopold’s bust in Ghent was attached to a crane with a strap and taken away from the small park where it stood amid applause. It will be transferred to a warehouse of a Ghent city museum pending further decision from a city’s commission in charge of decolonization projects.
“Removing statues does not erase history, it rectifies history and makes new history that rightly calls into question dominant narratives,” said Mathieu Charles, an activist from the Belgian Network for Black Lives.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past, instead focusing on the so-called positive aspects of the colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to Leopold removed.
Earlier this month, about 10,000 people gathered in Brussels despite the social distancing measures implemented to fight the spread of COVID-19, with many protesters chanting anti-colonialist slogans.
The Leopold statue in Ghent was vandalized several times in the past and again after Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Several other monuments of the former king scattered across Belgium were defaced over the past few weeks and a statue of the monarch in the port of Antwerp was removed from a marketplace by local authorities.
Meanwhile, regional authorities also promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism while the federal Parliament decided that a commission would look into Belgium’s colonial past.
Belgium Prime minister Sophie Wilmes has called for “an in-depth” debate conducted “without taboo.”
“In 2020, we must be able to look at this shared past with lucidity and discernment,” she said Tuesday. “Any work of truth and memory begins with the recognition of suffering. Acknowledging the suffering of the other.”
After Leopold’s claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony 75 times Belgium’s size until the African nation became independent in 1960.
In his letter Philippe stressed the “common achievements” reached by Belgium and its former colony, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
“At the time of the independent State of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory,” Philippe wrote, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” Philippe acknowledged. “I want to express my most deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today revived by discrimination that is all too present in our societies,“
Philippe also congratulated Tshisekedi on the anniversary of Congo’s independence, ruing that he was not able to attend the celebrations to which he had been invited due to the coronavirus pandemic.


India’s medical body accused of ‘fixing’ vaccine trial date

Updated 56 min 50 sec ago

India’s medical body accused of ‘fixing’ vaccine trial date

  • Experts say move is part of efforts to showcase progress in handling outbreak

NEW DELHI: A day after India’s apex medical body issued a clarification for setting Aug. 15 as the deadline to fast-track the trials of a vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), doctors and health experts said on Sunday that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was “fixing the date” for the use of the coveted drug.

“It is no coincidence that this vaccine fixing trial by the ICMR comes soon after the flabbergasting claim made by Baba Ramdev (a yoga guru) of discovering the Ayurvedic cure for COVID-19,” Harjit Singh Bhatti of New Delhi-based Progressive Medicos and Scientific Forum told Arab News.

He added that the fact the order was issued to launch the vaccine for public use by Aug. 15 implied that the results had already been given. 

“The so-called trial is only an attempt to put a veneer of validity on them,” he said.

This follows the ICMR’s directive on Tuesday asking select medical institutions to expedite the clinical trial approvals for Covaxin, a potential anti-virus candidate developed in collaboration with Bharat Biotech International, a leading vaccine and bio-therapeutics manufacturer based in Hyderabad.

“In light of the public health emergency ... and urgency to launch the vaccine, you are strictly advised to fast-track all approvals related to the initiation of the clinical trial ... no later than July 7. It is envisaged to launch the vaccine for public health use latest by Aug. 15 after completion of all clinical trials,” Dr. Balram Bhargava, ICMR director-general, wrote in the order.

The ICMR chief warned hospitals not to delay the trials, adding that “non-compliance” would be taken “very seriously.”

Faced with growing outrage over the message, the ICMR issued a statement on Saturday that claimed the six-week deadline was “to cut red tape.”

“The letter by the ICMR director-general to investigators of the clinical trial sites was meant to cut unnecessary red tape, without bypassing any necessary process, and speed up recruitment of participants,” the statement said.

Health experts, however, said it was a “disturbing” development.

“It is very disturbing that the ICMR would fix a date for releasing a vaccine even before the Phase-1 trial has started. Everybody knows India mismanaged the epidemic. You cannot save face with this kind of approach to the vaccine,” Dr T. Jacob John, a biologist at the Vellore-based Christian Medical College in Tamil Nadu, told Arab News.

The missive has prompted a huge outcry among medical and political circles.

“Any doctor or scientist who has been trained to practice medicine with a scientific temperament in the service of our people would be outraged by the criminal audacity of the government,” Bhatti said.

He added that if “science were to have its way,” the trials would have been done in phases to ensure the vaccine was safe. 

Dr. Amar Jesani, Mumbai-based independent researcher and editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, said the idea was “laughable” and that it violated the ICMR’s guidelines on ethical medical practices.

“It’s a pipe dream, and you cannot have a vaccine by commanding that the vaccine should work,” Jesani told Arab News.

Meanwhile, Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned that the vaccine should not come at “the cost of scientific and ethical standards.”

“The WHO recommends that Phase-3 trials, often considered the most important, should involve up to 20-30,000 people,” she said in an interview with Indian newspapers on Sunday.

As the chief medical body of the Indian government, the ICMR is tasked with formulating guidelines to deal with COVID-19 cases in the country. 

To this end, it sets the parameters for ethical standards in medical trials, while its head reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Following the developments on Saturday, questions are now being raised as to whether the ICMR was under political pressure.

Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said scientists were being “forced” to show results so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could announce them during his Independence Day speech on August 15. 

“Forcing the development of an indigenous vaccine as a cure for COVID-19 by bypassing all health and safety norms... is fraught with horrendous human costs,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Jesani reasons this is owing to a “direct relationship of power with the ICMR.”

“There is no doubt that the director-general of the ICMR was assigned to get going by August 15 so that there would be something positive for the PM to say in his address to the nation. He thinks that the vaccine is the best thing to talk about,” Jesani said, adding that it could also be a means for the ICMR to redeem itself.

“No doubt the ICMR has been under great pressure for the last three months and wants to redeem its credibility…[but] it is science that ultimately controls the outcome,” he said.

As of Sunday, India had over 700,000 active COVID-19 cases with more than 20,000 deaths reported.