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A prominent historian urges to put an end to the use of fossil fuels in order to address the injustices of colonialism.
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A prominent historian urges to put an end to the use of fossil fuels in order to address the injustices of colonialism.

A renowned historian from Europe has stated that cities in the global north that reduce their carbon footprint are taking greater steps towards addressing colonial wrongdoings compared to those who concentrate on removing statues and renaming streets.

David Van Reybrouck, a popular Belgian writer known for his acclaimed book on the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his recent publication about Indonesia’s struggle for independence from Dutch colonization, has become a leading figure in the ongoing and contentious discussion about Europe’s colonial past. Praises for his work have come from prominent figures such as German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French president Emmanuel Macron, and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

In a conversation with the Guardian, Van Reybrouck expressed disapproval towards the movement of historical accountability, stating that it is excessively fixated on the past. He suggests instead that we shift our attention towards acknowledging the ongoing effects of colonization on the present and future.

Van Reybrouck stated that colonialism encompasses more than just its historical context. The current issue of climate change is also heavily influenced by colonialism, as it has primarily been driven by the actions of temperate countries in the northern hemisphere and has disproportionately affected the tropics and Arctic regions. It is impossible to fully decolonize without addressing and reducing carbon emissions, and vice versa.

He stated that the prevalence of identity politics in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands has resulted in a crucial discussion about long-standing colonial systems being pushed aside to focus on minor conversations about symbolic actions rather than fundamental resolutions.

David Van Reybrouck.View image in fullscreen

According to him, a mayor who achieves a fossil-free city by 2040 has made a greater effort against colonialism, racism, and discrimination than another mayor who only focuses on decolonizing street names, statues, and schoolbooks while still using fossil fuels to power the city.

Van Reybrouck suggested that instead of solely focusing on state-to-state negotiations for reparations, former colonial powers should work together to provide financial aid for addressing the effects of the climate crisis in the global south.

According to the recently published English translation by David Colmer and David McKay, in his book “Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World,” Van Reybrouck proposes a larger perspective on the dissolution of Europe’s colonies in the global south. He suggests that these events should not be viewed solely as a struggle between colonizers and the colonized, but rather as interconnected movements for independence in Asia and Africa.

Van Reybrouck stated that the horizontal dynamics are often overlooked due to our singular focus on resistance against colonization at a local level.

Dutch troops in Java in 1949View image in fullscreen

The book discusses Indonesia’s independence as a major event with global impact, on par with the French and Russian revolutions. It was declared just two days after Japan surrendered in August 1945 and took four years of armed struggle to achieve. According to Van Reybrouck, the archipelagic state’s transition to self-governance had to be quick, complete, and absolute, serving as a model for other Asian and African countries striving for independence.

According to the author, who interviewed 185 witnesses for their research, the process of decolonisation needed to be carried out swiftly and completely, encompassing the entire territory of the former colony and involving the transfer of political authority. This approach differed greatly from the British perspective, as seen in the partitioning of India prior to its independence, which was a decision that Gandhi deeply regretted.

The teachings of the revolusi were shared during the 1955 Bandung conference on the island of Java, marking the first international diplomatic gathering without Western involvement. This conference had a significant influence on other independence leaders including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Nasser even referred to the conference as one of the most crucial events in modern history, alongside the discovery of atomic energy.

Participants climb greased polesView image in fullscreen

Van Reybrouck stated that acknowledging the significance of Bandung was crucial in comprehending the purpose of the UN. He mentioned that before 1955, the UN was predominantly controlled by Western powers, but this changed significantly after the Bandung Conference. In 1945, less than 25% of UN members were from Asia and Africa, but by 1961, they made up more than 50% of the member states. It could be argued that the primary role of the UN throughout history has been to support decolonization efforts.

According to him, analyzing the process of decolonization in territories governed by smaller European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands has revealed valuable insights for Europe.

The Dutch government’s control over the Netherlands East Indies, established in 1816 and comprising the islands now known as Indonesia, was characterized by exploitation and oppression. By the 1930s, the European state had transformed its colonies into a “police state” with significant fascist influence, according to Van Reybrouck.

However, the Netherlands relinquished control of the territory relatively quickly and completely, resulting in Dutch no longer being considered an official language and being spoken by only a small number of younger Indonesians. According to Van Reybrouck, many young Indonesians today do not carry the weight of their colonial history and see it as a distant past.

In 2022, the former Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, publicly expressed remorse for his country’s extrajudicial killings and use of torture during the Indonesian independence wars. Similar apologies have also been made in recent years by Belgium to the DRC, Britain to Kenya, and Germany to Namibia.

However, Van Reybrouck believes it is necessary to implement a more unified strategy. He notes that while there has been a trend towards Europeanization in all aspects of the continent, the colonial past remains a stronghold of nationalistic thinking. In the modern era, it is imperative to contemplate on 20th-century colonialism through the lens of 19th-century nation-states.

He suggested that comprehending the movement of European colonialism may involve connecting the dots between the exploitation of Asian, African, and South American territories, as well as Denmark’s colonization of Greenland, and Sweden and Finland’s colonization of the Sami people in the northern regions of their countries.

Van Reybrouck suggested that a potential way to begin addressing the issue would be to establish a European museum dedicated to colonialism, as it currently does not exist.

Source: theguardian.com