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Black Pete & Sinterklaas: UN experts encourage respectful national debate on Dutch tradition

GENEVA (21 November 2013) – As Dutch celebrations of the arrival of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas began across the Netherlands last weekend, the debate over whether the portrayal of his servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), perpetuates a negative stereotype of Africans and people of African descent has heightened significantly.

A group of United Nations independent human rights experts, who were instrumental in raising the matter*, today called on the Dutch Government to take the lead in facilitating the growing national debate, in order to promote understanding, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue.

The following is a statement by the human rights experts: the five-Member Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGPAD), chaired by Verene Shepherd; the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed; the Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák; and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mutuma Ruteere:

“We have received complaints from individuals and civil society organizations in the Netherlands who consider that the portrayal of Zwarte Piet perpetuates a negative stereotype and derogatory image of Africans and people of African descent. In January 2013, we sent a letter to the Dutch Government raising these concerns and related allegations, and requesting its comments. We asked what steps were envisaged or adopted to address such concerns. This was not an ‘investigation,’ nor was there any intention to reach a judgment.

The Government’s reply to us acknowledged that some Dutch people find the tradition offensive, and that complaints relating to Zwarte Piet had sharply increased. It pointed out that national mechanisms allow individuals to complain of cases of discrimination.

Both letters were included in a report made public in early September 2013. In late October, we began to receive disturbing reactions, including threats and insults. We were deeply troubled by the virulent intolerance expressed by those who could not understand that there might be problems with the way Zwarte Piet is presented or that the presentation might be perceived negatively.

The tradition has evolved and continues to evolve, but it is clear that many people, especially people of African descent living in the Netherlands, consider that aspects of Zwarte Piet are rooted in unacceptable, colonial attitudes that they find racist and offensive. Indeed, since the debate over Zwarte Piet has escalated, people of African descent report being subjected to even greater racial abuse and ridicule, actions which we condemn.

Debates on traditional practices take place all over the world, and the debate on Zwarte Piet has been ongoing for several years. Our role as independent human rights experts is to relay the concerns of often marginalized and stigmatized individuals and groups who may face negative reactions when they express their concerns openly.

Cultures and traditions are not static – they change in response to evolving contexts and in the light of understanding of how dignity and all human rights can be enjoyed by all.

We agree that, as is the case for many traditions, Zwarte Piet is interpreted in different ways, but critical questions have been raised including: how should we treat the concerns of those who are offended by Zwarte Piet, as well as those who are unhappy about challenges to what we acknowledge is a long-held tradition for children? How do we respect the views of all those living in multicultural societies? Useful suggestions are emerging about how the best aspects of this tradition can be preserved, but equally how elements that offend might be modified.

Ultimately, this is for the people of the Netherlands to discuss and decide. We strongly encourage the Government to support and facilitate an open debate in Dutch society, with a view to creating an understanding of how this tradition is perceived by different groups and to identify steps that might respond to the views and concerns of all. Debate should be inclusive, non-confrontational and respectful and the establishment of a dedicated platform, forum or mechanism could be desirable to achieve that.

The fight against discrimination, racism and xenophobia must include recognizing and promoting understanding, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue. We are willing to support discussions on this issue between the Government and civil society. In the meantime we ask for calm and an end to the abuse directed at opponents of the tradition in the Netherlands and the UN Experts.”

(*) In January 2013, the Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent (Verene Shepherd, Monorama Biswas, Mirjana Najchevska, Mireille Fanon Mendes-France & Maya Sahli); the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed; the Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák, and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mutuma Ruteere, sent a communication to the Government of the Netherlands regarding the Dutch celebration of ‘Black Pete,’ which, each year is part of the Saint Nicholas Event (5 December). Read the communication: https://spdb.ohchr.org/hrdb/23rd/public_-_AL_Netherlands_17.01.13_(1.2013).pdf

In its reply the Government of the Netherlands clarified that it views the Sinterklaas festival as a traditional children’s festival. The Government is aware that people’s opinions of this festival differ and that the role played by ‘Black Pete’ is sometimes a subject of public debate. The Government informed the independent experts of existing national mechanisms through which people may raise complaints about discrimination and the increase in number of complaints about ‘Black Pete.’ The Dutch Government pointed out that it is highly committed in combating discrimination on all grounds. Read the Dutch Government’s reply: https://spdb.ohchr.org/hrdb/24th/Netherlands_10.07.13_(1.2013).pdf

ENDS

The United Nations human rights experts are part of what it is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the United Nations Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.They are charged by the Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. In March 2014, three new mandates will be added.

Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity

Special Procedures: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx
Country mandates: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Countries.aspx
Thematic mandates: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Themes.aspx

For more information, log on to:
Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/WGAfricanDescent/Pages/WGEPADIndex.aspx
Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/SRCulturalRightsIndex.aspx
Independent Expert on minority issues: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/IExpert/Pages/IEminorityissuesIndex.aspx
Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Racism/SRRacism/Pages/IndexSRRacism.aspx

For further information please contact Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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