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.