UN Human Rights experts have called for a respectful debate as the Dutch celebrate the arrival Saint Nicholas and Black Pete.
As the 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.
In a statement the five-Member Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said they had 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.
The Working Group emphasizes that in a letter to the Dutch Government in January 2013 it had raised these concerns and related allegations, and requested 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 Human Rights experts say in their statement.
The Dutch Government replied that it 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.
The Human Rights experts included the exchange of letters in a report made public in early September 2013. In late October, the experts say they 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.”
“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 members of the Working Group point out that debates on traditional practices take place all over the world and that their 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.
“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.,” the human rights experts say in their statement.
The five-Member Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGPAD), was established by the Commission on Human Right (later UN Human Rights Council) and is chaired by Verene Shepherd. Its other members are: 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.
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