The Carnival of Aalst and its removal from the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List

2020

Information and context

Culture

In 2019 the Carnival of Aalst received international attention twice. The first time when a parade float with Jewish caricatures sparked an international storm of indignation. And a second time when UNESCO decided to remove the Carnival of Aalst from the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The debate about these incidents has not always been nuanced. Moreover, there is a chance that the debate will flare up again at the next carnival parade in Aalst in February 2020.

The Flemish Commission for UNESCO in Belgium endeavours to create dialogue and forge connections between people. To support an open and respectful debate, the Commission has published a fact sheet about the Carnival of Aalst and the circumstances that led to its removal from the UNESCO list.

FACT SHEET
The Carnival of Aalst and the removal from the UNESCO list

With this fact sheet, the Flemish Commission for UNESCO in Belgium wishes to provide factual information about the Carnival of Aalst and the circumstances that led to the removal of the carnival in 2019 from UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Flemish Commission for UNESCO acts as a liaison between UNESCO and Flanders and advises, informs and promotes dialogue.

History

The Carnival of Aalst was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.

The brief description for the recognition was:

The festival is exuberant and satirical. Distinctive features are Prince Carnival who symbolically becomes mayor and receives the key to the city during a ceremony in which local politicians are ridiculed; a procession of ‘giants’ and Bayard, the horse from the legends of Charlemagne; a broom dance on the Grote Markt to chase away the spirits of winter; a parade of young men dressed as women with corsets, prams and broken umbrellas and a ritual burning of the giant carnival puppet accompanied by shouts that the party is going to last all night. In addition to the meticulously built floats of the official participants, informal groups attend the festivities and give mocking interpretations of the local and international events of the past year. The 600-year-old ritual, which attracts up to 100,000 spectators, is a joint effort of all social classes and a symbol of the identity of the city in the region. The centuries-old carnival, which is constantly being reinvented by new generations, is a tribute to the unity of Aalst with its collective laughter and slightly subversive atmosphere.

When the carnival was first inscribed on the Representative List, there were already objections, especially from Arab countries because of alleged Islamophobia. Since that time there have been several conflicts with UNESCO. In 2013, then director-general Bokova strongly condemned Nazi-scenes during the carnival, during which revellers from a ‘loose’ group had dressed up as members of the Gestapo. UNESCO also received complaints in 2005, 2009 and 2018. However, these were not of the same order as the ones in 2013 and no further action was taken at that time.

Edition 2019

On 3 March, 2019, the annual carnival parade set out with 71 official groups, 188 ‘loose’ groups and thousands of individual revellers and partygoers. For this edition, the carnival group De Vismooil’n had chosen ‘Sabbatical Year’ as their theme. The group had decided not to invest too much money in their float that year. On and around the float, De Vismooil’n presented stereotypical caricatures of Jews. Their puppets, that were supposed to depict Jews, were given hooknoses, corkscrew curls and a money-chest. The group wanted to make clear that they were short of cash and therefore took a sabbatical year so they could make a more beautiful float in 2020. Televised images of the float caused great national and international outrage from the Jewish community, as well as from other groups concerned with human rights. UNESCO received a flood of complaints about the alleged anti-Semitic nature of the float.

Without making enquiries or engaging in a constructive dialogue, UNESCO sent out a press release on 6 March 2019 strongly condemning the ‘anti-Semitic images’. Subsequently, on 21 March 2019, the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, on the proposal of the UNESCO Secretariat, decided to register an agenda item at the Committee Meeting of 9-14 December 2019 in Bogotá (Colombia) about the possibility of removing elements from the Representative List of the Convention, following the Carnival of Aalst. UNESCO quickly communicated this agenda in a press release on 22 March 2019, whereby the organisation also explicitly mentioned the support of Director General Azoulay for the possible removal of the Carnival of Aalst from the list. In the course of 2019, the Belgian Permanent Delegation to UNESCO in Paris regularly received overviews of complaints, as well as copies of letters received by UNESCO on the matter, asking them to respond.

In Belgium, a dialogue process was started very quickly in all serenity, whereby members of the carnival group involved and representatives of the Carnival of Aalst entered into a conversation with representatives of the Jewish community. UNIA, the Belgian independent public institution responsible for fighting discrimination, facilitated the process. The carnival group expressed regret and stated that it was never their intention to hurt the Jewish community with anti-Semitic or discriminatory images. Together with the Jewish representatives, the carnival group visited the Kazerne Dossin as a sign of their willingness and efforts to heal this painful incident. The intangible heritage expert from the Flemish Commission for UNESCO in Belgium also took part in this dialogue process.

Dialogue

In order to prepare for the discussion of the case by the UNESCO Committee in December 2019, informal consultations took place on 1 July and 20 August of that year between departments of the Flemish government and the city of Aalst.

In view of the city’s wishes to enter into dialogue with UNESCO, the Government of Flanders requested a consultation with the UNESCO Secretariat and with the Evaluation Body of the Convention for Intangible Cultural Heritage. This consultation took place in Paris on 17 September 2019 in the presence of the mayor and an alderman of the city of Aalst.

On 23 October 2019, UNIA published the report ‘Carnival and the limits of freedom of expression’. This report contains a thorough analysis, conclusions and recommendations. UNIA ruled, among other things, that there was no breach of Belgian or European legislation on discrimination and racism, since there was no conscious incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence against Jewish people. The report should have been the culmination of the discreet dialogue between representatives of the carnival groups and of the Jewish community, with a message of mutual understanding and consensus. In the end, it turned out differently after the report came to the public’s attention through the media, which led to a new wave of criticism from, among others, the Forum of Jewish Organisations.

Removal

At the beginning of November 2019, the UNESCO Secretariat distributed the document for the discussion of the agenda item about the Carnival of Aalst by the competent Committee at its meeting in Bogotá. Without dialogue with the communities, groups and individuals involved, a draft decision was included in the document to effectively remove the Carnival of Aalst. It also turned out that the previous consultations with the city of Aalst, as well as the process of dialogue between the parties involved and the UNIA report, were not taken into account. In addition, the draft decision contained incomplete or incorrect information on several points. UNESCO followed the numerous objections it had received mainly from Jewish groups about the alleged anti-Semitic nature of the float. Many UNESCO member states subsequently also endorsed these objections.

In view of the extremely critical tone of the UNESCO document with regard to the Carnival of Aalst and following further discussions, the city of Aalst decided to take matters in their own hands and withdraw the Carnival of Aalst from the UNESCO list. This was formalised in a letter of 2 December 2019, addressed to the Flemish Department of Culture, Youth and Media.

The letter from the city of Aalst with its request for withdrawal, together with an accompanying letter from the competent Flemish department – taking note of the wish of the heritage community – was sent to UNESCO through diplomatic channels on 5 December 2019. The Kingdom of Belgium, as State Party to the convention, requested a formal withdrawal of the element.

On 13 December 2019, during the meeting of the Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, all member states unanimously approved the decision to remove the Carnival of Aalst from the UNESCO Representative List. This agreement also concerned the addendum with the request from Aalst as a heritage community and from Belgium as a State Party to allow the element itself to withdraw. For the first time in the history of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an entry from the Representative List was deleted. UNESCO communicated this decision the very same day with its own press release.