Europe’s colonial history and double standard
Commemorating Europe Day, European mission heads in Bangladesh jointly penned an opinion piece published by The Daily Star on May 9. It emphasised European Union's (EU) solidarity with Ukraine and reiterated continuation of humanitarian support for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. On reading it, two questions crossed my mind: 1) Could the EU prevent Ukraine war from happening; and 2) Is the EU sincere in its commitment to human rights of the Rohingya? To elaborate on my point, let us first look at Europe's colonial history.
Have you ever wondered why the African state boundaries are often straight lines? The answer is, because they were drawn at will by a group of dealmakers, predecessors of today's European leaders, with a ruler and a pencil. In the winter of 1884-85, they spent 104 days in Berlin over a five-metre long African map to tear the continent apart among themselves. Unsurprisingly, no Africans were allowed there.
The Berlin Conference was convened by Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire, on November 15, to divide Africa according to "international law." The colonial powers drew arbitrary territorial boundaries on the map, utterly disregarding the cultural and linguistic lines of the Indigenous population. Such boundaries cut through tribal societies and lumped fragmented and disparate tribes into newly formed colonies. Oxford Professor Terence Ranger noted: "Before colonialism, Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identities." But with the forced imposition of the new boundaries, laws, and systems by the colonial powers, all that was gone, creating a fertile ground for perpetual conflicts.
There are tons of documents recording the torture, massacre, looting, exploitation, enslavement, and devastation that followed. The Berlin Conference allocated a part of the Congo Basin to Belgium's King Leopold II as his personal kingdom. Under his rule, over half of its population died. A century on, the same Belgium's capital, Brussels, is the home of the EU that promotes human rights, democracy, and international order. Few leaders from present Europe will take responsibility for the atrocities of their colonial past. Even as the colonies are now independent, Africans fight more civil wars than interstate conflicts that not only kill and maim people but also keep millions trapped in endemic poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. The ongoing civil wars benefit business too. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), African countries are a good market for French arms, Algeria being among the top.
But France has refused to even acknowledge the atrocities it carried out in Algeria. Macron has ruled out issuing an official apology for abuses there. The Belgian king, however, made history in June 2020 by expressing regret for the country's atrocities in Congo, but it stopped short of an apology. In July last year, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema apologised for the city's role in the African slave trade. However, the Dutch Prime Minister refused to acknowledge its unsavoury past. In September 2001, the EU moved to apologise to African countries for the slave trade. But Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal rejected it. In summary, Europe is at best divided on the question of confronting its dark colonial history, prompting one to question its sincerity towards human rights and international order.
As for Ukraine war, can the EU really deny its role in the series of events that led to it? The Soviet Union fell in 1991. The EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) granted memberships to most Eastern European nations. These two organisations worked in close coordination and surrounded Russia's western borders, practically bringing the war to Moscow's doors. Notwithstanding Putin's desire to restore Russia's glory days, we cannot ignore Nato's and EU's irresponsible actions. Let's not forget, a similar treatment of Germany after the First World War led to the Second.
On the EU's commitment to human rights, let us look at the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The EU continued trading with Myanmar's military junta despite its continued atrocities against the Rohingya population. Italian University of Trento academics Arlo Poletti and Daniela Sicurelli elaborated on this point in a January 2022 paper titled "The Political Economy of the EU Approach to the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar." In response to the Rohingya crisis in 2018, the EU continued its trade preference to Myanmar, knowing well that it will benefit Myanmar army and assist it in continuing the genocidal activities against the Rohingya.
I will end by quoting a piece published in Phileleftheros, a Cypriot daily, "It is very likely that Ukraine would have avoided a Russian invasion and the world a new cold war and the threat of a nuclear holocaust if Europe had pursued its own policy instead of serving American hegemony. Europe had the opportunity to integrate Russia into a European security system, which would have also promoted the development of democratic institutions in that country, but it failed to do so… Europe opted for a solution that is already proving disastrous for its own interests."
You can do better, Europe.
Dr Sayeed Ahmed is a consulting engineer and the CEO of Bayside Analytix, a technology-focused strategy and management consulting organisation.