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When promoting “European” values, recognizing colonial crimes is key

- By Anna Khakee

- Research article available here


The reelection of Emmanuel Macron – the first French president born after the demise of the French empire – will probably mean that one of the most notable aspects of his foreign policy in the first term will continue: his politique mémorielle. The most emblematic step of this policy was without a doubt the commissioning of the wide-ranging Stora report on aspects of France’s colonization of Algeria. Last year, Germany went some steps further in reckoning with its colonial past by formally apologizing for the genocide committed in what is now Namibia against the Herero and the Nama. The Black Lives Matter movement has also had repercussions across Europe over the last two years, with renewed discussions about the role of colonial-era slavery in the accumulation of wealth in the UK, colonial crimes by Italy in the Horn of Africa, and the horrendous atrocities committed in Belgian Congo amongst others.

It was another historical reckoning which led to the emergence of the European project after the end of the Second World War and which is celebrated on Europe Day. The 9th of May celebrates “peace and unity in Europe” – a cornerstone of European self-understanding.

European policies to promote peace, unity, democracy, and human rights around the globe are based on this feat of history overcome. Its centrality is such that “the principles which have inspired [the EU’s] own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world” are listed in the Lisbon Treaty (Art. 21(1)) “democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for… international law”.

This rendering of European history of course eludes the fact that colonialism was not a thing of the past during the first decade of European integration: Algeria and Belgian Congo, for instance, were still colonies when the Treaty of Rome was signed. They clearly did not experience European democracy, rule of law and respect for human dignity. Building on the work of scholars such as Peo Hansen and Kaylspo Nicolaïdis, who have highlighted such inconsistencies in European historiography, my recent article in the International Spectator examines such omissions in the particular context of EU democracy and human rights promotion in former European colonies. It seeks to examine the consequences of the silencing of colonialism in EU discourse.

We know that European colonial powers vigorously and systematically suppressed, up until the last days of colonial rule, colonial subjects’ demands for democratic political participation. We know that colonial human rights abuses ranged from suppressing freedom of association and expression to detentions without trial, forced labour, collective punishments and systematic torture. We also know that the rule of law was actively resisted by colonial powers, which regularly resorted to emergency legislation and imposed separate sets of laws for the local populations and for colonial settlers. In colonial wars, acts such as forced displacement, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and even the usage of non-conventional (chemical) weapons occurred in some places where the EU is now promoting values of unity and peace.

The article shows, through a series of examples, that these colonial misdeeds are mostly silenced in the context of EU democracy promotion in former colonies. In that sense, in respect to democracy promotion, the EU has not followed in the footsteps of the memory politics emerging in France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere.

This silencing of colonialism in combination with EU ‘ownership’ of democratic and human rights ideals, the article argues, has an important consequence: that the colonial-time hegemonic discourses are left undisturbed. In such discourses, the coloniser was enlightened, well governed, developed and humane, while primitive violence, extremism and barbaric criminality were projected onto the colonised Other. Thus, democracy promotion in some ways perpetuates past discourses by implicitly maintaining a civilisational hierarchy. By omitting European state colonial violence and systematic denial and breaches of human rights, rather than recognizing – and possibly atoning for – them, Europe manages to retain ‘moral superiority’ over currently less democratic and human rights-abiding former colonies.


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