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[Update] United Nations investigates Zwarte Piet for racism23 October 2013, by Alexandra Gowling
Complaints made to United Nations High Commission for Human Rights have resulted in a letter being sent to the Dutch government requesting clarification on the character of Zwarte Piet.
A letter (published by NRC) from the Chair-Rapporteur from the Working Group on people of African descent stated that the UN has received information that the character and image Zwarte Piet perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism.
"The Black Pete segment of Santa Claus [sic] celebrations is experienced by African people and people of African descent as a living trace of past slavery and oppression, tracing back to the country’s past involvement in the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries," the letter said.
It also stated that a growing opposition to the racial profiling of Zwarte Piet within Dutch society had been reported, including by people of non-African origin, but no response had been given to associations asking for dialogue on the issue.
Lastly, the Chair-Rapporteur asserted that proposals had been made to include the Sinterklaas festival on the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
"It is our responsibility under the mandates provided to us by the Human Rights Council to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention. Since we are expected to report on these cases to the Human Rights Council, we would be grateful for your cooperation and your observations," the letter stated.
Dutch government’s response
Firstly, the Dutch Ambassador to the UN responded in a letter of his own that there were no plans to place the Sinterklaas festival on any UNESCO list, hence the reason why there had been no consultation on the topic with the Dutch public in the Netherlands, Suriname or the Dutch Antilles.
Why the UN thought they had made such an application is not known.
Secondly, he stated that the Dutch government sees the Sinterklaas festival as a traditional children’s festival, with the focus on Sinterklaas as a figure who hands out presents.
He added that the government is aware the people’s opinions of the festival differ and that "the Dutch government is aware that 'Black Pete' is considered by some to be offensive."
He also noted that complaints to anti-discrimination offices about Zwarte Piet have been increasing in recent years: from three or four a year in Amsterdam up to 2010, then 113 in 2011 and a record 204 in 2014.
He said this "increase in the number of complaints can probably be accounted for by the ongoing public debate in the Netherlands concerning the role of Black Pete."
On Friday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that Zwarte Piet is simply black and the discussion is a matter for society, not the government.
Photo by Flickr user zoetnet
Whether Zwarte Piet is a controversial figure is a debate that continues to rage, although it seems to be growing in strength.
Activists in Amsterdam are trying to have the annual Sinterklaas procession banned, saying the tradition is discriminatory and should be updated to take into account modern sensibilities.
Opponents of the current form of Zwarte Piet recently took their objections to Amsterdam City Hall for the Appeals Board to assess the permit for the Sinterklaas parade.
"We are shocked by the bad reactions on social media," said the chairman of the appeals committee. The police have been contacted in order to ensure the hearing goes ahead.
Earlier this year, a survey was conducted to reveal how Amsterdammers felt about Zwarte Piet, showing that 27 per cent of Surinamese and 18 per cent of Antilleans felt it was discriminatory towards them, while 58 per cent of Moroccans felt it discriminated towards others.
Changing the tradition
Public broadcaster NTR, producer of the daily Sinterklaas news show, said it understands the sensitivities.
"If the tradition changes, NTR will change with it. But it is not the place of NTR to change this tradition unilaterally without social consensus."
Henk Leegte, who organises the Amsterdam procession, said he is happy to discuss possible changes with protestors in January.
He also says he understands their objections to the curly hair, black make-up, red lips and gold earrings.
"I can personally propose beginning by giving one hundred out of the five hundred Piets a different appearance," he said.
It is, however, it is too late to make changes this year, as the procession is due to take place on November 17.
[Update] A UN spokesperson has said that this Working Group does not represent either the organisation or UNESCO in an investigation on whether Zwarte Piet is racist.