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Belgian foreign minister criticised for ‘blacking up’

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders faced accusations from rights groups on Thursday of ignoring his country’s colonial past after he “blacked up” for a children’s charity.

Reynders posted pictures on his blog page of himself at a gathering of “Les Noirauds” (The Blackies) in their traditional dress of black face paint with a white top hat and a white ruff.

Reynders, who is from Belgium’s French-speaking community, said on his website that he took part with “goodwill and good humour”.

But Human Rights Watch European media director Andrew Stroehlein said it was “shocking and embarrassing” for a minister to dress up in such a way.

“Does this make his position as Foreign Minister untenable? Surely some counterparts abroad will refuse to meet with him after this, no?” he wrote on Twitter.

Actress and rights advocate Mia Farrow forwarded the message with a simple exclamation mark.

“Will you wear blackface outfit to next meeting with African leaders? Shame on you!” added Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at HRW.

Belgium appeared taken by surprise at the outrage sparked by Reynders’s involvement with the charity group, which was founded in 1876.

Every year Les Noirauds dress up in blackface and take part in a carnival in central Brussels during which they go around restaurants collecting money for disadvantaged children.

Reynders’ website featured pictures of him in the costume with a group of others from the charity posing in front of Brussels’ famed Mannekin Pis statue — which was itself in one of the group’s outfits.

Reynders said the group are “disguised to be noticeable while also remaining anonymous”, adding that they were “dressed alike for the occasion, to lead a joyous procession to the rhythm of a band in the streets of Brussels.”

The president of the group, Jean-Francois Simon, said Reynders was not actually one of the group’s 58 members.

Simon said the dress dated from “an era of discovery in Africa”, adding: “And the costumes haven’t changed since.”

But the criticisms are uncomfortable given Belgium’s colonial history in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi until the 1960s.

Under King Leopold II the Congo was ruthlessly exploited for natural resources and became the site of some of the worst atrocities of the colonial age.

Belgium also had to wrestle with its past in the form of the racially stereotyped comic book “Tintin in the Congo”, by the Belgian author Herge.

A Belgian judge refused to ban the book in 2012.

The country recently closed the world’s last colonial gallery — the Royal Museum of Central Africa, with its much criticised Leopardman statue and outdated exhibits — for a major refit.

The Reynders row echoes the unease in the neighbouring Netherlands over “Black Pete” — the jolly sidekick of Saint Nicholas who traditionally dresses in a gaudy medieval costume, blackened face, red lips and an afro wig.

An Amsterdam court ruled last year that despite being a deeply rooted custom Black Pete was a “negative stereotype” that some people saw as racist.