From the early 1950s onwards The Netherlands has been actively engaged in establishing a solid and elaborated framework of human rights protection, both at a European and United Nations level. However the general assumption was that the UN CEDAW and UN CERD Conventions in particular were mainly of importance for more ‘backward’ countries, where unacceptable practices such as the oppression of women, racial discrimination and apartheid still existed on a large scale. The Dutch had an image of themselves as very liberal and tolerant people who could teach the world about human rights standards. It has therefore come as quite a shock that, in recent years, Dutch practices and cultural traditions are increasingly being examined by the CEDAW and CERD Committees and deemed to be discriminatory. When such observations and comments become public the common reaction is that these Committees do not understand our cultural traditions and that they ‘should keep their hands off our precious Dutch folklore’.
Such comments have also been heard from Governmental sources, particularly when the CEDAW Committee repeatedly declared that the Dutch Government should take action against a political party that excluded women from its membership. A recent example of protests against ‘unwanted interference’ were the comments made by the CERD Committee on the figure of Black Pete in the Dutch Sinterklaas festivities on 5th of December. Sinterklaas and Black Pete are seen as part of Dutch national identity which, in the view of proponents of the tradition, deserve protection from international human rights organisations rather than criticism.
Black Pete is the servant of Sinterklaas who helps the good old bishop to deliver the presents down chimneys, which is the general explanation these days as to why the figure is black. However, traditionally, black Pete was a north African (Moorish) servant of the white bishop from Spain. In the Sinterklaas story Black Pete was also the ‘bad guy’, carrying out Sinterklaas’ verdict that naughty children should be put in a bag and transported back to Spain. For decades ethnic minority groups in the Netherlands have protested against this figure, in which they see a caricature of a servile and stupid or ignorant negro with curly hair and huge red painted lips and golden earrings. This appearance, in their view, cannot be explained by the chimney story. Other people associate Black Pete with the Dutch history of involvement in the slave trade. They argue that Black Pete is as objectionable as the tradition of ‘black facing’ in the US. However the stronger these objections are worded in terms of colonialism and racism, the fiercer the tradition has been defended by many others in Dutch society. Last year it even resulted in an administrative court procedure concerning the Mayor of Amsterdam’s decision to grant a permit for the Sinterklaas festivities. In the end the claimant lost the procedure because, according to the highest administrative court, a Mayor is not authorised to test whether a festivity is racist or not. On the other hand, in the same period, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights issued an Opinion in which it held that the tradition indeed was harmful in the sense that the figure of Black Pete confirmed negative stereotypes about black people.
The legal obligation of the Dutch State to combat racial stereotypes can inter alia be based on Article 7 UN CERD: “States Parties undertake to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnical groups.” In line with this obligation, the UN CERD Committee on 28 August this year commented on this tradition, asking the Dutch government to take measures.
17. While the Committee understands that the tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Pete is enjoyed by many persons in Dutch society, the Committee notes with concern that the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery, which is injurious to the dignity and self-esteem of children and adults of African descent. The Committee is concerned about the discriminatory effect of such portrayals, which may convey a conception at odds with the Convention. The Committee is furthermore concerned at reports that citizens seeking to peacefully protest against such portrayals have been denied authorization to conduct such protests at a meaningful time and place and have been subjected to violent attacks and other forms of intimidation, which have not been adequately investigated. (arts. 2, 5 and 7).
18. Considering that even a deeply-rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that the State party actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery. The Committee recommends that the State party find a reasonable balance, such as a different portrayal of Black Pete and ensure respect of human dignity and human rights of all inhabitants of the State party. The Committee further recommends that the State party ensure non-discrimination in the enjoyment of freedom of expression and association, and that attacks on protesters be effectively investigated and duly prosecuted.
In a reaction to the Committee’s Concluding Observations, (liberal) Prime Minister Mark Rutte maintained his earlier position that the Government is not in a position to do anything about it, and that this is an issue to be freely and slowly changed by society itself. The (social democrat) Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, on the other hand, announced that he sees it as his role to facilitate a dialogue between defenders and opponents of the tradition. Facilitating a dialogue is, however, not what the CERD Committee seems to be asking from the Government.
In my view, it is highly regrettable that the Government is openly reluctant to take comments and recommendations of international human rights committees seriously. It thereby undermines the authority of these institutions and makes it easier for all other countries to simply discharge any findings of discriminatory practices or cultural traditions.
The good part of the story is that in Dutch society, a slow change in opinions is now visible. More and more schools and towns now practice the idea of ‘rainbow Petes’, painting the faces of Sinterklaas’s servants in a variety of different and cheerful colours.