The Order of Leopold II is a distinction of Belgian knighthood and one that is unique in many ways from the others. In origin it was not Belgian at all but African being instituted by S.M. King Leopold II as king-sovereign of the Congo Free State. It was instituted on August 24, 1900 as a way to recognize those who had performed some act of daring or bravery or someone who had otherwise shown great talent in their service to the king. In 1908, when the Congo Free State was taken over by the Belgian government, the Ordre de Léopold II became a Belgian distinction of knighthood. Today it still remains and is often awarded at the appropriate times throughout the year. The general qualification is still the same as it always had been; performing meritorious service for the King of the Belgians. It is seen as more flexible than other knight medals and a little more as a gift of the King's favor than other national distinctions.
Also, unlike, perhaps, as in times past, there is much more standardization for the decisions of who becomes a chevalier. Some cases are still awarded as they always have been; for some great act of military bravery or being distinguished in civilian life so that the King wishes to recognize them. However, in probably most cases the Order of Leopold II is now become more of a "long service award" since it is usually automatically given to soldiers for certain years of service, officers are usually automatically given one when they retire and usually automatically are given the order if they are appointed as an aid to the King or Duke of Brabant. Usually a person must be over the age of 42 to be given the award but this restriction does not apply to people in the military who are considered.
The order is available in eight degrees starting with a bronze medal, a silver medal and a gold medal. Then there is the degree of knight, then officer, then commander, then grand officer and finally the highest degree with is the grand cross. The design is a Maltese cross topped by a crown with the Belgian lion symbol in the center surrounded by the national motto. When the award was first made before 1908 the centre was decorated with the national emblem of the Congo Free State and surrounded by the Free State motto, "Travail et Progrès". There are also other minor distinctions that may be awarded depending on the act which merited the award or if it is done in war or peace. The Foreign Affaires ministry is in charge of the national distinctions of knighthood though there are always some spaces reserved for people who merit the award but not for the usual criteria. It is considered the third greatest honor of the Belgian knighthoods.