Panel: Calm debate on Zwarte Piet needed

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The independent human rights experts who looked into Zwarte Piet on Tuesday called on the Dutch Government to take the lead in the ongoing debate about whether it’s time the tradition undergo a change. In a statement issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Geneva, the experts said that facilitation by Government of the debate would serve to promote understanding, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue. “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,” the statement read.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGPAD) had become part of the heated Zwarte Piet debate earlier this year after receiving complaints “from individuals and civil society organizations in the Netherlands” that the portrayal of the helper of Sinterklaas “perpetuates a negative stereotype and derogatory image of Africans and people of African descent.”

Group chair Verene Shepherd landed scorn when –in anticipation of the final report- she told Volkskrant that her own opinion was that “Zwarte Piet should be abolished.” The experts explained in the statement that their task had not been an ‘investigation,’ nor was there any intention to reach a judgment.

They pointed out that the Zwarte Piet tradition has evolved and continues to evolve, saying: “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.” They added though that it is clear that many people, especially people of African descent living in the Netherlands, consider that aspects of it 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,” the experts wrote.

They said it is for the people of the Netherlands to discuss and decide how elements that offend might be modified. “Zwarte Piet is interpreted in different ways, but critical questions are how to treat the concerns of those who feel offended, and those who are unhappy about changing a long-held tradition for children? How do we respect the views of all those living in multicultural societies?”

The experts recommended Government facilitate an “open, inclusive, non-confrontational and respectful” debate on the issue. The recommendation counters a statement by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said that the discussion is not one that regards Government.

A press release from the UNHCHR, including the policy opinion of the Working Group, can be read below.

The statement by the experts comes just days after the Second Chamber almost unanimously voted against a motion that aimed to forbid giving Zwarte Piet a different color than black. The motion was brought on Tuesday by PVV parliamentarians Geert Wilders and Martin Bosma, who felt that the calls for a Piet with different colors were a "blatant assault" on Dutch heritage and tradition.

135 of 150 MPs shot the measure down. Only Wilders, the other 13 PVV members, and former PVV-er Louis Bontes voted to prevent Zwarte Piet from being another color.

 

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: (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: (1.2013).pdf

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