No Space on the Olympic Podium for Human Rights

The world brings people from different nations together “at the same time, in the same place, in the spirit of friendly competition,” for the largest sporting celebration in the world – the Olympic Games.[1] However, the Olympic Games are rarely without controversy, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are no different.[2] The Chinese Government has been accused of committing crimes against humanity, including mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution, against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the northwest region of Xinjiang.[3] With human rights taking a center stage during these Winter Olympics Games, many are questioning the role and responsibility of the International Olympic Committee (“I.O.C.”) to protect human rights, and what steps, if any the I.O.C. should take to bring human rights protection to the forefront. The Olympic Charter contains fundamental principles that relate to the respect of human rights in the Olympic Games, however the I.O.C. has continuously failed to adhere to these vague principles. Some in the I.O.C. believe protection of human rights should not come at the cost of politization of the Olympic Games, however the I.O.C. cannot simultaneously be an example to respect one another while a host country’s government commits human rights violations.

History & the Role of the I.O.C.

The I.O.C. is “an international non-governmental not-for-profit organization, of unlimited duration, in the form of an association with the status of a legal person.”[4] The purpose of the I.O.C. is to “fulfill the mission, role, and responsibilities as assigned to it by the Olympic Charter.”[5] The Olympic Charter is “the codification of the fundamental principles of Olympism,” governing the actions of the Olympic Movement and “establishes conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games.”[6] One major responsibility of the I.O.C. is choosing a host city for each Olympic Games.[7] The host city is elected via secret ballot.[8] The entry process has three stages, (1) vision, games concept, and legacy, (2) governance, legal, and venue funding, and (3) Games delivery, experience, and venue legacy.[9] Every candidate must submit “to the I.O.C. a legally binding instrument by which the said government undertakes and guarantees that the country and its public authorities will comply with and respect the Olympic Charter.”[10] The Olympic Charter, which was updated in 2021, tackles every aspect of the Games, including the Olympic Games’ responsibility regarding human rights.[11]

The I.O.C. & Human Rights

According to the I.O.C., human rights are highlighted in Fundamental Principles 1, 2, 4, and 6 and Rule 2 of the Olympic Charter.[12] However, these Rules do not clearly outline the Olympic Games’ commitment to human rights. Principle 2 declares that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”[13] While these words sound meaningful, they provide no actionable goals. Further, when discussing human rights, the Olympic Charter regularly frames rights within the context of sports. For example, Rule 2 outlines that the role of the I.O.C. includes opposing any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes, promoting safe sport, and promoting the protection of athletes from harassment and abuse.[14]

With Beijing hosting the biggest sporting event of the year amid human rights violation allegations, this Winter Olympic Games, “is forcing an overdue reckoning for powerful sports bodies that for years have sidelined their formal commitments to human rights.”[15] However, this is not the first time China, as a host nation, has faced backlash for human rights allegations. China previously hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 2008 advertising their event as “‘a force for good’ but instead featured journalist arrests, migrant labor abuses, and the repression of civil society.”[16] The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China has stirred even greater criticism, prompting a diplomatic boycott and criticisms of the I.O.C.’s commitment to human rights.[17]

In 2008, the Chinese government failed to uphold its promises to the I.O.C., and in 2022 they continue to do the same. Since the Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese government has “arrested journalists, women’s rights activists and lawyers; dismantled freedoms in Hong Kong.”[18] Most notably, China faces harsh criticism for “crimes against humanity in Xinjiang including mass detentions, torture, sexual abuse and cultural persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.”[19] At least one million people have been imprisoned in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities are accused of forced sterilization and forced labor.[20] The U.S. has gone so far as to declare these actions in Xinjiang as a genocide.[21] Even since the commencement of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, China has engaged in other abuses, including restrictions on free speech.[22] China has prohibited athletes from using their platform to speak out against the Chinese Government.[23] The deputy director of the organizing committee, a high Chinese Communist Party official, “explicitly threatened the world’s athletes in Beijing, saying if they act, protest or speak in a way that is offensive to Chinese law and the Chinese government, there will be ‘certain punishment.’”[24]

While Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from engaging in any “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” on official Olympic locations, the Chinese government has banned speech well outside the context of Rule 50, banning all forms of speech on any platform.[25] Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, warned athletes from using their individual platforms to protest, stating that athletes should “not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”[26] With grave human rights abuses occurring both in the host nation and within the Olympic Games, it calls into question the role of the I.O.C.

The I.O.C. already attempted to get ahead of the criticisms they face this Olympic cycle by renewing their commitment to improving the “promotion and respect of human rights within the scope of its responsibility.”[27] Under recommendation 13 in the Olympic Agenda 2020 + 5, the I.O.C. desires to amend “the Olympic Charter and the ‘Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance’ of the Olympic and Sports Movement to better articulate human rights responsibilities,” “enable the newly created I.O.C. Human Rights unit to develop the I.O.C.’s internal capacity with regard to human rights,” and finally, link the I.O.C.’s human rights framework with I.O.C. roles more generally.[28] These suggestions are a step in the right direction, however ultimately, they are vague and fail to use the levers available to the I.O.C. to address the issues plaguing the Games.

Recommendations

An independent report completed by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Rachel Davis, Vice President and Co-Founder of Shift [29], outlined recommendations for the I.O.C. Human Rights Strategy. [30] Firstly, the I.O.C. needs to clarify their roles and responsibilities with respect to human rights. The report recommends starting with the U.N. Guiding Principles to help clarify the I.O.C.’s responsibility in this area.[31] The U.N. Guiding Principles are “a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent and address human rights abuses committed in business operations.”[32] The U.N. Guiding Principles are ideal because they are a “recognized and legitimate framework that is aligned with international human rights standards and that all stakeholders support.”[33] The I.O.C. must expand their responsibility outside their individual sphere to include other entities in the Olympic Movement and the Guiding Principles can assist in this respect.[34]

Further, the I.O.C. needs to better define and align its standards with U.N. standards for human rights. The I.O.C.’s human rights responsibilities should be “grounded in respect for international human rights standards,” including the International Bill of Human Rights and the I.L.O. Declaration on Fundamental Rights and Principles at Work.[35]

Next, the I.O.C. needs to use the leverage it has in its possession to push National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations, Organizing Committees for the Olympic Games, and other stakeholders to adhere to international human rights standards.[36] While the I.O.C. cannot deny members participation in the movement, they have other tools at their disposal. The I.O.C. can integrate human rights requirements into agreements with National Olympic Committees and tie agreement compliance with financial disbursements.[37] The I.O.C. can also use their Executive Board power to suspend National Olympic Committees for persistent non-compliance.[38] The I.O.C. already uses levers such as these to protect other important issues to the Olympic movement, including the fight against doping.[39]

Finally, the I.O.C. also has the power to choose a host city, a coveted honor.[40] The I.O.C. could heighten the requirements for host cities, for example requiring proof they adhere to human rights prior to being chosen as a city, avoiding scenarios like this Olympic Winter Games.[41] The global spotlight and prestige associated with hosting the Games could create an incentive for voluntary human rights reform, replacing non-effective efforts such as sanctions, negotiations, and charters.[42] Within the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the I.O.C. had the opportunity to select a host who upholds human rights but failed to do so.[43] The contenders included Almaty, Kazakhstan, Beijing China, and Oslo, Norway. The I.O.C. chose Beijing, China to host, instead of Norway, a country long considered to be the standard for human rights.[44] Overall, the Olympic Games have the potential to be a tool for political and social change, however some, including I.O.C. President Thomas Bach, contend that the International Olympic Committee, as a civil non-governmental organization, should remain apolitical.[45]

Politization of the Olympic Games

In an Op-Ed, I.O.C. President Thomas Bach iterated his belief that the Olympic Games are not about politics.[46] Bach contends that “neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgment regarding the host country.”[47] Instead, in his view, the Games are an invitation from the I.O.C. to National Olympic Committees who then invite the athletes.[48] In his eyes, the Olympic Games cannot “prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world.”[49] To him, the Olympic Games are meant to set an example to the world to respect one another and solve problems “in friendship and solidarity.”[50] Bach specifically pointed to his individual experience with the Olympic Games as an athlete competing for West Germany during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. [51] West Germany was one of the countries that participated in the boycott of the Olympics in response to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.[52] His perspective is that the boycott simply punished athletes for something they had nothing to do with and “had no political effect whatsoever: the Soviet Army stayed nine more years in Afghanistan.”[53] Overall, the I.O.C. President sees the central mission of the Games as bringing together athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in a peaceful sporting competition, and not as a tool to combat human rights abuses.[54]

While the principal purpose of the Olympic Games is to host a sports competition, the notion that the Games are apolitical is false. If the events were apolitical, then “athletes would represent themselves rather than arrive and be celebrated while swaddled in the flags of the countries from which they hail.”[55] Further, there are instances of iconic political moments during nearly every Olympic Games. For example, in the 1908 Olympic Games Ralph Rose refused to dip the flag in front of the royal box in London, making a point about the sovereignty of Ireland.[56] Or, in 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air during the American National Anthem to show solidarity with oppressed Black people around the world.[57] The Olympics have not been apolitical, and therefore the I.O.C. should no longer be permitted to hide behind this excuse. While it is a heavy burden to place on a sporting event, the I.O.C. could have the power to convince nations to adhere to International Human Rights standards when other international mechanisms have failed. There is great prestige and honor in hosting the Olympic Games. If countries might be willing to change their human rights practices to gain this honor, then the Olympic committee has a responsibility to use their power to make a difference. The I.O.C. cannot simultaneously be an example to the world to respect one another while the host country’s government is committing grave human rights violations.[58]

  1. Celebrating the Olympic Games – The World’s Biggest Sporting Event, International Olympic Committee (Feb. 4, 2022), https://olympics.com/ioc/celebrate-olympic-games.
  2. Winter Olympics: China stirs controversy with Uighur torchbearer, Aljazeera (Feb. 4, 2022), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/5/beijing-winter-olympics-china-uighur-torchbearer.
  3. China: Crimes against Humanity in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch (April 19, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/19/china-crimes-against-humanity-xinjiang.
  4. Olympic Charter, art. 3, Aug. 8, 2021, https://stillmed.olympics.com/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf?_ga=2.50327526.1928597266.1644369745-1789136554.1643075355 at
  5. Id.
  6. Olympic Charter, International Olympic Committee (Feb. 4, 2022), https://olympics.com/ioc/olympic-charter.
  7. Id. at art. 32
  8. Who chooses the host for future Olympic Games, International Olympic Committee (Feb. 4, 2022), https://olympics.com/ioc/faq/roles-and-responsibilities-of-the-ioc-and-its-partners/who-chooses-the-host-for-future-olympic-games.
  9. Id.
  10. Olympic Charter, supra note 4, at Art. 33.3.
  11. Id.
  12. Respecting Human Rights, International Olympic Committee (Feb. 4, 2022), https://olympics.com/ioc/human-rights.
  13. Olympic Charter, supra note 4, at Principle 2.
  14. Id. at Rule 2.
  15. Minky Worden, Human Rights Abuses Will Taint the Olympics and the World Cup. It’s Time to End ‘Sportswashing’ Now, The Washington Post (Jan. 5, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/05/human-rights-abuses-will-taint-olympics-and-world-cup-its-time-end-sportswashing#.
  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Winter Olympics: China stirs controversy with Uighur torchbearer, supra note 2.
  21. Austin Ramzy, China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/world/asia/china-genocide-uighurs-explained.html.
  22. Max Witynski, China’s human rights violations raise ‘unprecedented’ conflict for Olympic movement, scholar says, UChicago News (Feb. 3, 2022), https://news.uchicago.edu/story/2022-olympics-beijing-china-human-rights-violations-uyghurs-xinjiang-diplomatic-boycotts.
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. Id.
  26. Daniel Victor, Steven Lee Myers, & Alan Blinder, Pelosi warns U.S. athletes not to anger China’s government with protests, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/sports/olympics/pelosi-protests.html.
  27. Respecting Human Rights, supra note 12.
  28. Olympic Agenda 2020+5 – 15 Recommendations, International Olympic Committee (Feb. 4, 2022), available at https://stillmed.olympics.com/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/IOC/What-We-Do/Olympic-agenda/Olympic-Agenda-2020-5-15-recommendations.pdf?_ga=2.107436100.773061009.1644158534-1789136554.1643075355#page=30.
  29. Shift is a nonprofit organization with expertise on the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Who we are – Shift, (last visited Feb. 19, 2022) https://shiftproject.org/who-we-are/.
  30. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein & Rachel Davis, Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy (Mar. 2020), available at https://stillmed.olympics.com/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/News/2020/12/Independent_Expert_Report_IOC_HumanRights.pdf#_ga=2.28201338.773061009.1644158534-1789136554.1643075355.
  31. Id.
  32. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (2011), available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Business/Intro_Guiding_PrinciplesBusinessHR.pdf.
  33. Prine Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein & Rachel Davis, supra note 31.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. Id.
  37. Id.
  38. Id.
  39. Id.
  40. Who chooses the host for future Olympic Games, supra note 8.
  41. Kevin B. Blackstone, to prevent the next Olympic embarrassment, the world needs to take a stand, The Washington Post (Dec. 12, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/12/12/olympic-diplomatic-boycott-ioc-beijing/.
  42. Julie H. Liu, Lighting the Torch of Human Rights: The Olympic Games as a Vehicle for Human Rights Reform, 5 Nw. J. Int’l. Hum. Rts. 213 (2007) at 214.
  43. Blackstone, supra note 41.
  44. Id.
  45. Michelle Bruton, IOC President Thomas Bach: Olympics ‘Are Not About Politics,’ Athletes Should Be Politically Neutral At Games, Forbes (Oct. 26, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/michellebruton/2020/10/26/ioc-president-thomas-bach-olympics-are-not-about-politics-athletes-should-be-politically-neutral-at-games/?sh=46e7f5f79d87.
  46. Id.
  47. Id.
  48. Id.
  49. Id.
  50. Id.
  51. Id.
  52. Id.
  53. Id.
  54. Id.
  55. Blackstone, supra note 41.
  56. Id.
  57. Nadra Kareem Nittle, Why Black American Athletes Raised Their Fists at the 1948 Olympics, History (May 25, 2021), https://www.history.com/news/black-athletes-raise-fists-1968-olympics.
  58. Beijing Olympics Begin Amid Atrocity Crimes: 243 Global Groups Call for Action on Rights Concerns, Human Rights Watch (Jan. 27, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/27/beijing-olympics-begin-amid-atrocity-crimes.

 

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