UN’s Zwarte Piet critic is an ‘unpaid volunteer’ says Belgian paper

The United Nations official who said the Netherlands’ Sinterklaas festivities should be scrapped because Zwarte Piet is a throw-back to slavery is a volunteer who is not paid by the UN and does not speak on behalf of the organisation, according to Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

There has been an outcry in the Netherlands since Verene Shepherd made her comments about Zwarte Piet and racism on a television programme. But according to UN spokesman Xabier Celaya in De Morgen, Shepherd is an ‘independent expert chosen by member states’.

Sinterklaas is also celebrated in Belgium and the festivities there also include Zwarte Piet.


Shepherd leads a four-person strong working group which was set up in 2008. In January the team, known as the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, wrote to the Dutch government asking for clarification about the character of Zwarte Piet. It also asked about plans to have the festivities included in Unesco world heritage listings.

Marc Jacobs, Belgium’s Unesco representative, said in an opinion piece on website deredactie.be that Shepherd’s group does not represent Unesco in any way. ‘The four signatories are not a Unesco recognised body but used United Nations letter paper,’ he said.

However, according to the Volkskrant, the team will publish a report on the case which will be presented to the UN’s high commissioner on human rights or the human rights council.

That could lead to a UN resolution, UN expert Dick Leurdijk of the Clingendael institute told the paper. Eventually, the Netherlands could be recommended to drop the Sinterklaas festivities, although the Netherlands would be free to refuse to do this, Leurdijk said.


Meanwhile, Groningen city council is reportedly considering inviting Shepherd to the northern city to witness the arrival of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets on November 16.

The council wants to show Shepherd ‘what an enormous children’s party’ is celebrated every year, the NRC reported.

However, the town of Hoogezand has cancelled plans to include multi-coloured Piets in its Sinkerklaas celebrations for disadvantaged children after receiving email threats and accusations that officials were traitors.

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