What is the role of human rights independent experts?
We’ve been receiving lots of comments and questions on social media about the human rights special procedures experts and issues raised recently concerning the Dutch celebration of Black Pete, also known as “Swarte Piet,” which is part of the annual Saint Nicholas Event.
The special procedures experts of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts who report and advise on human rights in all parts of the world from a thematic or country-specific perspective.
The experts work on a voluntary basis. They are not UN staff and don’t get paid a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serves in their individual capacity. Their work includes:
- making country visits
- acting on individual cases as well as broader concerns by sending communications to bring alleged violations or abuses to the attention of States and others
- conducting studies
- raising public awareness.
Recently, four of these experts sent a letter to the Dutch Government relaying information they had received predominantly by people in the Netherlands. According to the information, the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, stirring racial differences as well as racism. The experts also asked whether, as had been reported to them, the Dutch authorities had selected the annual Saint Nicolas Event to be submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
In its response, the Dutch Government provided clarification on these and several other issues.
While there may be vigorous debate on issues raised by independent experts, these individuals should not be subject to hate speech or attacks on their personal integrity or any form of harassment or intimidation in their defence of human rights, as has happened in this case.
As Dutch celebrations of the arrival of Sinterklaas started in November, the debate over whether the portrayal of Black Pete perpetuates a negative stereotype of Africans and people of African descent heightened significantly.
On 21 November, the independent experts who were instrumental in highlighting the issue released a statement calling for respectful national debate on the tradition.