02 September 2015

United Nations wants to scrub Black Pete’s face

AMSTERDAM--The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has released its report on discrimination in the Netherlands following a meeting with the Dutch delegation in Venice, Italy, last week. The committee highlighted a number of concerns and made recommendations regarding, among other things, Black Pete, ethnic profiling by the police, racist statements made by politicians, anti-Semitic chants during soccer games, the asylum policy and ethnic-bullying in schools.

"Considering that even a deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that [the Netherlands – Ed.] actively promotes 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 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," the Committee writes. 

Black Pete, or "Zwarte Piet" in Dutch, helps the Dutch version of Santa Claus distribute presents every year in early December and is displayed as a silly, mischievous and indolent character, usually animated by an actor in blackface. In recent years, he has become a lightning rod for a cultural debate, and has even sparked violence. 

During his weekly press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Black Pete was not a matter of state. "Beware of a country where the State decides what folk tradition should look like. I really think that is something for the people to decide and not a matter of politics," said Rutte. 

The Black Pete issue was a small element of the report on the Netherlands which is produced every five years and looks at racism and discrimination in general. 

The committee noted that not all Dutch municipalities have an anti-discrimination policy that is in line with the State's policy on anti-discrimination and added that it is the national government's responsibility to ensure that all cities comply. 

They also expressed concerns about "incidents of racist and xenophobic hate speech emanating from a number of extremist political parties and politicians," the prevalence of "racist discourse in the media" and the increase of racist statements and threats on the Internet. 

In this regard, the Committee is particularly concerned about the sharp increase in discrimination against members of Jewish and Muslim communities, including the reported increase in verbal abuse, harassment, and physical violence against Jewish and Muslim persons. 

The fact that anti-Semitic chants are "commonplace at football stadiums" is also a big problem, the Committee stated. 

The UN Committee recommends that the Netherlands "adopt a firm stand against the use of hate speech for political purposes, increase efforts to combat racially motivated hate speech and ensure that criminal acts perpetrated on grounds of 'intersectionality' between ethnic origin and religion are duly investigated and prosecuted." 

The Committee also recommends that a national plan of action against racial discrimination be developed and adopted, especially given the fact of continuing racial profiling by the police which has "produced feelings of mistrust among minority groups and discourages them from accessing help when they are victims of crime or rights abuses." 

According to the Committee, the current policy on migrant integration has shifted from the State to migrant communities. "This approach puts migrants in particularly vulnerable situations at risk of receiving insufficient attention and support, leaves them vulnerable to social exclusion and hampers their integration." 

They are also concerned about the asylum policy stating that undocumented migrants only receive assistance if they comply with their own expulsion. 

"The Committee reiterates its previous recommendations, and urges the State to ensure that its integration policies reflect the responsibilities of the State," the Committee said in its report. 

The government should also ensure that undocumented migrants are provided with food and shelter in all circumstances prior to deportation and that they have access to healthcare in all parts of the Dutch Kingdom, which is currently not the case in Curaçao and Aruba. 

The Netherlands has to report back to the Committee in 2019 on changes and improvements made.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties.

All States parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented. States must report initially one year after acceding to the Convention and then every two years. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of “concluding observations”.

In addition to the reporting procedure, the Convention establishes three other mechanisms through which the Committee performs its monitoring functions: the early-warning procedure, the examination of inter-state complaintsand the examination of individual complaints.

The Committee meets in Geneva and normally holds two sessions per year consisting of three weeks each.
The Committee also publishes its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, known as general recommendations (or general comments), on thematic issues and organizes thematic discussions.

For more information about the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, click here.