Some European countries have apologised for their colonial past. Is it enough?

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By Alice Tidey
A sign reading "Museum of Colonial Mental Space" is displayed during a "de-colonial tour" of monuments tied to the slave trade or colonial-era abuses in Paris, July 5, 2020.
A sign reading "Museum of Colonial Mental Space" is displayed during a "de-colonial tour" of monuments tied to the slave trade or colonial-era abuses in Paris, July 5, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Francois Mori

European countries apologising for their colonial past and historical role in the slave trade is "an important first step" but more much is needed to heal the wounds of the past, an expert told Euronews.

The Netherlands on Monday became the latest country to issue a formal apology.

Almaz Teffera, a researcher on racism in Europe for Human Rights Watch, described it as "a big deal", and "an important first step" that "will also lay the path for accountability of the Netherlands" and allow for some "healing for the descendants".

"You could say that obviously, this apology comes 150 years too late since the abolition of slavery, but it is nevertheless a signal that things will change and change that will now need to be translated into action," she added.

The Netherlands now joins Denmark, France, the UK and the European Parliament which have issued apologies or officially recognised slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

Former Pope John Paul II also apologised for the church's role in slavery.

Germany, meanwhile, issued an apology in 2021 for its role in the slaughter of Herero and Nama tribespeople in Namibia, labelling it a genocide. But according to Teffera "the statement cannot really be seen as a true apology because it didn't really acknowledge the wrongs committed by the Germans, by Germany."

Other countries are still deliberating. 

Belgium's King Philippe expressed his "deepest regrets for the wounds" inflicted on the country by his ancestors during a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo in June but did not offer a formal apology. 

A Belgian parliamentary committee on the colonial past, set up in 2020 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, ended its work on Monday with lawmakers failing to reach a consensus on an "apology" to former colonies.

The Human Rights Watch researcher argued that although positive, apologising is "not the last step toward a reckoning with its slavery past and the impact it has on descendants of enslaved people today."

"For an apology to really go as far as it should, it really requires a recognition that crimes have been committed during the colonial era and a true commitment also to repair these wrongs," she said. 

Royal families also have their role to play and should similarly issue apologies, Teffera said.

"The Dutch royalty should also issue an apology since they also profited from the Dutch slave trade and the argument that royal apologies would lead to polarisation in society or other arguments against it, they just don't hold up," she said.

Financial reparations to the formerly colonised countries and to descendants of slavery victims as well as a more honest account of colonialism in school curricula detailing the crimes that were committed to better educate future generations are among the measures Teffera said are needed.

The EU Anti-Racism Action plan unveiled in 2020 as protests against racism and police brutality swept through the US and Europe following the death of George Floyd is a welcomed step, Teffera said. 

The plan requires EU countries to adopt national action plans taking into account their colonial past in order to better tackle issues of structural racism.

Watch our interview with Almaz Teffera in the video player above.