Crimes during liberation wars: The Lumumba murder

Institute – Research & Academia – Lumumba

The first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Patrice Lumumba had only been in office for a few months when he was murdered in the Katanga region on 17 January 1961. Although many international and national actors were involved, the former colonial power Belgium played an important role in Lumumba’s assassination and in the armed conflict following DRC’s independence.

In 2001, a Belgian parliamentary investigation into the events concluded that Lumumba’s transfer to the hostile province of Katanga was organized with Belgian governmental officials’ support. However, it concluded that Belgium only had a moral responsibility for its role according to current norms, not a legal one.


50 years after Lumumba’s murder, his son filed a criminal complaint against 11 Belgians for their involvement in the assassination. The criminal investigation is still pending. ECCHR has supported the case from the beginning and submitted an amicus brief in 2011 on applicable periods of prescription. The investigation into Lumumba’s assassination has been pending since 2011, and has seen no substantial progress over the past several years. The case stands out factually and legally. Factually, it is likely one of the last opportunities to conduct a criminal investigation into colonial wrongs.

Legally, serious violations of the Geneva Conventions during decolonization can qualify as war crimes. The Geneva Conventions applied to Belgium and the DRC at the time the events occurred. Contemporary sources support that international criminal responsibility applies to grave and serious violations of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts. Any other reading would mean that the numerous war crimes committed in former colonies, which were considered the territory of the colonial powers, go unpunished.

Belgian officials exercised considerable influence in DRC, particularly in the Katanga province, even after independence. There are therefore strong arguments that the conflict continued to be an international armed conflict between the DRC and Belgium at the time of the assassination.


The criminal investigation into Lumumba’s assassination is part of a broader context of structural impunity for the crimes committed by European colonial powers during decolonization. While the long-term effects of colonization persist, direct accountability is rarely possible.

Activists in many countries, including Belgium, are pushing for accountability for colonial crimes. There are discussions about truth commissions or alternative mechanisms to address European countries’ colonial crimes. The Lumumba case may be the last opportunity for direct accountability in this context.

Glossary (5)


Postcolonial legal criticism

The academic field of postcolonial legal criticism looks at the repercussions of colonialism and imperialism today. In this context, law is seen as a social and cultural construct which changes over time. During the period of colonialization by European states, national and international law developed in a way that made it possible to legitimize for example slavery and genocide. European law, with its often racist elements, spread to many parts of the world in the course of colonialization.

Postcolonial theoreticians show how imperial laws served to cover up colonial violence and how injustice was legitimized through the fig leaf of law. The law was used, for example, to deny indigenous populations in the colonies their status as legal persons. The development of international law was also closely interwoven with colonialization. Postcolonial legal criticism today tries to uncover and challenge colonial continuities in both national and international law.

Topics (1)


War crimes

Attacks directed against civilians; torture of detainees; sexual slavery – when committed within the context of armed conflict, these and other grave crimes amount to war crimes as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While the system of international criminal justice makes it possible to prosecute war crimes, in many cases those responsible are not held to account.

There is often a huge gap between the promise of international criminal law and the reality of how it is enforced. While there have been trials for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to date no politician or military officer from a Western state has ever sat on the defendant's bench at the International Criminal Court or a UN Special Tribunal. The double standards of international criminal justice in many cases represents an obstacle to the enforcement of universal human rights.

When addressing crimes committed in armed conflict, it is essential that the law applies equally to all. ECCHR takes legal action to address war crimes like the abuse of Iraqi detainees by British soldiers and torture in detention facilities run by the Syrian intelligence services. ECCHR uses a range of legal approaches – submissions to the International Criminal Court, criminal proceedings in national jurisdictions, actions under the principle of universal jurisdiction – to challenge impunity for war crimes. 


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