Tuesday, 20 July 2010



A new address for the EC’s Directorate General for Trade?

The Minister of External Affairs, Prof. G. L. Peiris received a letter recently. It came from the office of the European Commission. It was not exactly a show-cause letter, but it was essentially a snub, a threat and more of a ‘chapter-closing’ kind of missive. It related to the GSP Plus trade concessions or their suspension, rather. The letter was posted from Brussels, Belgium.

Yesterday I wrote about the Congo and its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. I did not realize that even as I was writing, King Albert II of Belgium and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon were standing side by side in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, ‘celebrating’ the Independence of that unhappy country, where my friend Nicky Karunarathna reminds me, the Belgians amputated Congolese who refused to work in the rubber plantations.

It is said that of all the Europeans who scrambled for control of Africa at the end of the 19th Century none left a legacy as terrible and violent as the Belgian monarchs. King Leopold II even justified the brutality and butchery as an effort to ‘protect natives from Arab slavers and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries’. Congo was turned into a massive labour camp. Close to 10 million people were killed. The killers had to chop off the hands of victims, to ‘show that the bullets used to kill were not wasted on animals’.

‘Legalized robbery enforced by violence’ was the watchword of the Belgians and June 30, 1960, was the one brief moment of hope for Congo and the Congolese. The moment was over on January 17, 1961. Lumumba was murdered. Today, 50 years later, King Albert II may or may not want to be reminded of the fact that his brother, delivering a ‘farewell’ speech in 1960 saluted the ‘genius’ of Belgian colonialism. Indeed, as moves are under way to finally bring to a close the investigation into the assassination of Lumumba, Belgium doesn’t want to discuss the subject. Naturally, one may add, for that’s what Belgium did for 50 years: pretend it never happened, feigned innocence in a dastardly crime against humanity. And we in Sri Lanka get letters from Brussels and are lectured to by the European Commission, an arm of the club of powerful and bullying nations in which Belgium is a member state. We are asked about the truth. We are asked about human rights. We are asked to improve mechanisms to ensure protection of human rights. The truth is that Belgium doesn’t like the word or the meaning and has symbolized a fascination with its polar opposite, falsehood and all related terms.

Apparently it has been found that Belgium was ‘morally responsible but not legally responsible’ for the murder of Lumumba. What nice things words are, I thought to myself, reading that line. That’s what an investigation commissioned by the Belgian Parliament had concluded. Well, no one need be surprised by the turn of phrase, for that’s what Colonialism was all about (i.e. when it was not turning bayonet inside the stomachs of ‘natives’ into which enlightenment was being thrust in the name of all kinds of charity, Christian included).

Here’s the funny part. Louis Michel, Belgium’s liberated ex-foreign minister and until last year the EU’s ‘Development Commissioner’ has declared (just last week) that Leopold II was a ‘true visionary for his time, a hero who brought civilization to the Congo’. ‘Civilization’ meant that men were worked to death and the women raped and starved. The women, in fact, had been held hostage to ensure that the Congolese men did not run off instead of subjecting themselves to brutal forms of forced labour, all of which Leopold II pioneered.

And we still get letters from Brussels, Belgium. All about human rights. About legislation that champion human rights and good governance. About being nice boys and girls. Just so we can get a US$ 150 million by way of trade concessions. This is blood money and if we really need it to stay afloat in these trying times there is only one thing we can do: learn to swim. Some of us may drown, but those who survive would have the one thing that we need to preserve for our children at all costs. Dignity.

I was wondering if I would not want to puke if the letter had not been posted in Brussels. The astounding fact is that the retching might be even more violent given histories and current realities, the crimes of omission and commission, in various parts of the world in various violent forms.

No, I doubt the EC can find a new address for its Directorate General for Trade. Or for any arm of the EU. Might as well close shop, if they have any shame. They don’t and therefore shop will remain open. The ball then is on our court. Finally. Thankfully.


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