By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student in Human Rights at Columbia University
About thirty years ago, at a point where Dutch colonialism had recently ended, the Netherlands felt it was time to rebrand itself as a true champion of human rights. And not just any champion. Envisioning itself as a world leader in human rights, it began to strongly push for universal human rights norms and international monitoring mechanisms. Thus, when the left-wing leader of the Radical Political Party, Bas de Gaay Fortman, expressed his belief in 1973 that the Netherlands was capable of taking on this pioneering role, many shared his vision and confidence. No more than two years later, this aspirational ideal had already turned into a self-perceived truth. In 1975, the same year in which the Netherlands granted independence to its colony Suriname, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Max van der Stoel, boldly claimed that the Netherlands was the most active human rights defender worldwide. Four years later, universal human rights were officially integrated into Dutch foreign policy.
Despite the fact that the Dutch government repeatedly let realist interests trump human rights concerns in their dealings with Apartheid South Africa and its former colonies Indonesia and Suriname, their rhetorical support for universal human rights never ceased to be stridently idealist. They certainly showed no patience for cultural relativists who played the “tradition card” to legitimize their human rights violations. Non-Western traditions that didn’t bode well with universal rights of gender equality, for example, were, and continue to be, criticized for oppressing women, girls, and sexual minorities. Take, for example, when leaders, such as the Russian President Putin or the Nigerian President Jonathan refuse to acknowledge gay and lesbian citizens as full human beings on the grounds of tradition, culture or religion. The Dutch are the first to point out that none of those three justifies exclusion and discrimination. Or when in 2008, the Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation at the time, Bert Koenders, declared his refusal to “accept the argument that female circumcision should be permitted because it’s a cultural or religious tradition.” “Fortunately,” he added, “there are more and more African countries that want to stop this awful tradition.” Many will agree with him that the work of women and men who seek to end female circumcision in their communities needs to be supported. After all, traditions and cultures are not static; they are dynamic and can evolve.
It, therefore, came as a surprise that Prime Minister Mark Rutte seemed to throw all this universalist logic out of the window when the traditional Dutch children’s holiday of Sinterklaas came under attack by human rights groups this past October. For those who have missed this in the international media, Sinterklaas is a white bearded Santa Clause-like character based on Catholic folklore that goes by the benevolently patriarchal alias Good Holy Man and who moves around on a white horse. He arrives by boat in late November and spends three weeks visiting schools across the country, allocating both gifts and morally charged advice for children young enough to accept the spectacle as real. The excitement then culminates in a night of gift-giving on December 5th. Yet the holy bearded man isn’t the problem for those who critique the tradition. What is the problem are his hundreds of helpers, all of whom are black-faced and endowed with Afro-wigs, big earrings, and big red lips. Named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), they jump around, throw around candy, and both entertain and intimidate the children with their clumsiness and seemingly endless energy. Children are reminded not to be too afraid of the Black Petes by some of the Sinterklaas songs, which include the following as part of the lyrics: “Even though he’s black as soot, his intentions are good.” The soot ostensibly refers to the process that turned him as black as we know him; he delivers Sinterklaas’ gifts through the chimney. Yet, and this has been repeatedly pointed out by many Dutch citizens of color, this hardly serves to explain his Afro wig, big earrings, and big lips. According to international critics and human rights advocates such as the Council of Europe’s Anti Racism Commission and United Nations Human Rights Experts, the tradition undermines the human dignity of the country’s black minorities, an experience that has repeatedly been articulated by Dutch citizens of color over the years.
So there we have it. Tradition versus human dignity. Majority privilege versus minority rights. As a global leader in human rights, surely the Prime Minister wouldn’t let the Dutch’s widespread love of Black Pete deter him from taking leadership in modifying the tradition into something that doesn’t hurt anyone’s human dignity? But then he did. Disengaging himself from the debate and casting the problem as a societal rather than a political one, Rutte claimed that “Black Pete, the name says it already, he’s Black.” Then, adding that he couldn’t “change much about it”, he chose to invoke the relativist ‘fixed tradition’ type of lingo that the Dutch so comfortably critique when it concerns others. A few weeks later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, had himself photographed with a group of Petes. Nonetheless, the mayor of Amsterdam found that Sinterklaas would be the most fun if everyone could enjoy it; however, as far as he could tell, it was not a political issue. Should this game of political schizophrenia surprise us? Realists would probably say no. With more than 13% of the Dutch populace signing a Facebook petition to keep Black Pete, upsetting your voters by changing their dearest tradition might feel too politically suicidal to pursue.
Those who have closely followed Dutch dealings with international and domestic human rights abuses these past few decades, including its recent dealings with gay rights in Russia, might not be all that surprised by the discrepancy between rhetoric and actions. But for those who still associate the country with progressiveness and tolerance, despite the country’s right-wing turn and the widespread racism that the Black Pete has exacerbated and made visible, it might have come more as a surprise. Exactly thirty years after the country so confidently took on its role as global human rights leader, its reputation finds itself on, rightfully, shaky ground.
Maria Hengeveld is a graduate student in Human Rights at Columbia’s Institute for the Studies of Human Rights. Before moving to New York, she studied and worked in South Africa for four years. She is interested in structural inequalities, youth and gender. She also writes for Africa is a Country.
 UN panel — the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent — headed by Verene Shepherd.