By Yoruk Bahceli
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A U.N. body called on the Netherlands on Friday to revamp its "Black Pete" Christmas tradition, where white performers black up to entertain children, as many saw it as a "vestige of slavery".
The comments from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will stoke an already heated debate on the custom, described as a harmless piece of fun by defenders, but condemned by other groups as an offensive stereotype.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte quickly dismissed the recommendations, saying it was not the government's job to shape folklore.
"Guys. Folk traditions, come on. What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter – this isn't what politics is about," he told reporters in The Hague
The Geneva-based U.N. committee, which does not have the power to enforce its recommendations, said the Dutch government should actively work to get rid of negative racial stereotypes in the depiction of the colorfully blackfaced assistant to a white St. Nicholas -- who inspired Father Christmas.
"(The stereotypes) are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery," it added.
Black Pete, who often appears with bright red lips and a curly black wig, has become a fraught topic in a country which has long regarded itself as progressive and tolerant.
In the run-up to last Christmas, police arrested 90 demonstrators in Gouda, 40 miles south of Amsterdam, for picketing the annual St. Nicholas parade. Some carried "Black Pete is racism" banners as others demonstrated in support of the character.
Surinamese, Antillean and African minorities perceive the tradition as a legacy of colonial racism. The National Platform on Slavery, a group which campaigns for atonement for the Netherlands' past role in the slave trade, said many black children found the depiction disturbing.
Last year, an Amsterdam court ruled that Black Pete was racist, but the decision was overturned by the country's highest administrative court.
The U.N. panel also called on the government to reverse its decision not to give food and shelter to rejected asylum seekers.
Rutte also defended that policy saying it would be "crazy" to offer permanent shelter to people who refused to return to their country of origin.
(Reporting by Yoruk Bahceli, additional reporting by Toby Sterling; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrew Heavens)