Hundreds of marchers in the Netherlands showed up Saturday to confront critics of the Dutch Christmas tradition of Black Pete. Earlier in the week the UN Human Rights Commission blasted the practice with comments from the Jamaican chair of a committee at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Verene Shepherd, bluntly told Dutch television that “the practice must stop”.
“The working group cannot understand that why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop,” she told the Eenvandaag show on Tuesday.
“As a black person, I feel that if I was living in the Netherlands I would object to it,” she said.
Ms Shepherd provoked further Dutch fury by suggesting they adopt a US-style “Santa Claus” instead.
As many as 500 marchers, some of them dressed as Black Pete, protested for two-and-a-half hours in Malieveld,” a park in the centre of The Hague, police spokesman Cor Spruijt said.
“Black Pete” accompanies Saint Nicholas during a children’s festival on December 5, when the Dutch give gifts to each other.
The character, who arrives on a gift-filled boat from Spain, is typically dressed in a gaudy medieval costume and afro wig, with his face painted black and lips red, prompting charges of racism.
Opponents say the character recalls the time when Dutch colonists exploited slaves, notably in the Caribbean colonies of Suriname and Curacao.
Supporters of “Black Pete” angrily reject such accusations, offended at any suggestion that a character so central to Dutch culture could be racist.
A Facebook page protesting the call for ending the tradition of Black Pete has become a record-setting page for that country with more than 1 million likes in a day. The page has more than 2 million likes now.
The backlash at the UN suggestion has some backpedaling in the fight against the tradition. Marc Jacobs, a Belgian Unesco representative, the UN’s cultural organization, has denied that the Jamaican who signed the letter, was authorized to do so.
“She’s just a consultant who abused the name of the UN to bring their own agenda to the media. All the hoopla that Shepherd has caused with her letter is nothing more than a bad move in the game of pressure groups in the Netherlands,” he told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.