What happens when the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights permits discrimination…

Still blackface in class.
Still blackface in class.

The Netherlands Institute of Human Rights is an institution which exists to expose, monitor and protect human rights, promoting compliance (including equal treatment) into practice, policies and legislation, and seeking to increase the awareness of human rights in the Netherlands. However, to be able to increase awareness of human rights, you need to first understand what human rights are.

In 2014 the Institute made a racist decision: it gave a school board, the SPO Utrecht, permission to use racial caricatures in the Dutch children’s festivity called Sinterklaas. The racist caricatures not only involved drawings and other images, but also involved people blacking up (donning facepaint and wigs in order to mimic black Africans). What makes this a bewilderingly bad judgement is that the Institute had also decided, in the same case, that the racist caricature, known as Zwarte Piet, is in fact discriminatory.

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Why then did a human rights panel, containing no black people, think that it was acceptable to let black schoolchildren be exposed to a demeaning racist caricature at school in 2014? It must be stated that the judgement cryptically said that the same manner of celebrating Sinterklaas in 2014 would perhaps not be acceptable in 2015, and gave the SPO Utrecht schoolboard a years moratorium to devise a different celebration, because according to the Institute the inclusion of Zwarte Piet would fail to provide a discrimination-free environment.

The moratorium offered to the SPO in 2014 goes against human rights principles; to put it simply, racist discrimination is wrong in every situation, and should be eradicated immediately and effectively. Giving a schoolboard permission to continue a racist practice goes against these basic human rights principles, and I would argue is a racist decision in and of itself: white people should not give anyone permission to violate a black child’s dignity.

The Netherlands Institute of Human Rights effectively gave Dutch society a pretext to continue the racist practice. Formally they had done the minimum required: they had declared that Zwarte Piet has discriminatory aspects. This declaration, concerning a self-evident fact, is unremarkable: it’s like declaring that an obese man is overweight.

What the Institute actually did, was to create a situation where talking about discrimination became the main objective. As long as a schoolboard had discussed discrimination, it was enough to show that they had fulfilled their duty of care obligations. This lead to school boards in the Hague making a statement that they would gradually eliminate discriminatory elements over a period of three years. This meant that schools could give themselves a moratorium of years, because the fact that they had considered the issue was enough.

It was okay not to eradicate the racism. The idea of discrimination being gradually reduced is a nonsense. Something is either discriminatory or it’s not. One swastika is not less offensive than two. The promotion of a swastika, singular or plural, is always offensive to Jews and antiracists, as much as the racist caricature Zwarte Piet (singular or plural) is always offensive to black people and anti-racists.

Because the Institute lost sight of the intrinsic dignity of the black person, other institutions have also lost sight of the real aim: to eradicate discrimination. This is all the more evident in local government: they believe that the inclusion of racist caricatures can continue, as long as an annual discussion (dialogue) is held about it.

The mayor of Utrecht, Jan van Zanen, claims to have no opinion whether it’s racist or not, now that the dialogue organised in the city of Utrecht suffices to fulfil his duty of care to discuss it. It’s an obvious smokescreen to continue with the popular racist caricatures, because yes, these caricatures are popular in the Netherlands, Van Zanen thinks that the existence of the dialogues absolve him from further responsibility to eradicate the racist caricatures entirely. The dialogues are an aimless discussion – with no decision-making or advisory capacity. A majority in society shouldn’t be able to agree to violate the rights of a minority. In a healthy democracy violating the dignity of a minority should be deemed unacceptable.

We are in now in 2017, three years after the 2014 judgement. Since then, the Institute have issued a standpoint, but they have not widely condemned schools or mayors who continue to support the discrimination. Zwarte Piet is still in schools, and still being greeted by mayors in their official capacity, and still being subsidised directly or indirectly by the state.

Even multinational companies feel comfortable with how normal this discrimination is in the Netherlands. In 2016, McDonald’s, the hamburger restaurant, subsidised a parade with 600 Zwarte Pieten (caricatures in blackface). The racism in these situations is self evident and overt (see photo’s of parades in Leiden where the caricatures are even portrayed as savages or cannibals). If an institution like the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights doesn’t understand what human rights are, or acts to protect them, what hope is there for the rest of Dutch society?