With one week to go until International Olympic Committee members vote on whether to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing, China, or to Almaty, Kazakhstan, a prominent human rights organization is calling on the body to make meaningful demands on the eventual host city in terms of cleaning up their practices.
Both Kazakhstan and China curtail freedom of expression and dissent, and engage in discriminatory and abusive labor practices, among other issues.
There are lots of factors going decisions by the IOC about which cities will get to host Olympic Games. Economic stability of the host country, venue infrastructure, travel times, and experience for both athletes and fans are among the big ones.
In the past, a country’s human rights record has not come into play so often. In past Games, especially in Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014, numerous human rights problems including forced evictions and labor abuses were documented in the run-up to the opening ceremonies.
(The Olympics are not alone in this regard, as other large sporting events such as soccer’s World Cup face the same issues.)
As part of the Agenda 2020 brought to the IOC by President Thomas Bach when he was elected in 2013, human rights and sustainable development were supposed to come more into focus in the Olympic mission.
And in September 2014, the IOC indeed announced that anti-discrimination language would be added to the host city contract, a move that was lauded by human rights groups.
That was apparent when Oslo, Norway, released the draft of its own host city contract after it decided not to bid for the 2022 Games. However, there was no requirement in the contract itself for the host organization to abide by anti-discrimination rules.
Instead, the language was couched in Section L of the preamble, a portion of the contract which is more descriptive than binding:
“WHEREAS the City and the NOC acknowledge and accept the importance of the Games and the value of the Olympic image, and agree to conduct all activities in a manner which promotes and enhances the fundamental principles and values of Olympism, in particular the prohibition of any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, as well as the development of the Olympic Movement…”
And in terms of labor and environmental protections, these were included in the contract, but not in great detail or specificity:
“The City, the NOC and the OCOG undertake to carry out their obligations and activities under this Contract in a manner which embraces the concept of sustainable development, and which serves to promote the protection of the environment. In particular, the concept of sustainable development shall address the legacy of the Games, including the concerns for post-Olympic use of venues and other facilities and infrastructures, referred to in Section 36 below. The City, the NOC and the OCOG shall take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organisation of the Games comply with local, regional and national legislation and international agreements, standards and protocols, applicable in the Host Country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, healthand safety and labour laws.”
Now, with just one week to go before IOC members gather in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the nonprofit Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging them to consider human rights when they make their decision and implement reforms that would allow them to hold host countries accountable for vague promises made in this regard.
For instance, the IOC’s Evaluation Commission report on Almaty “claims that the government provided ‘assurances regarding the right to demonstrate, media freedom to report on the Games and Games preparations with no restrictions on the Internet, labor rights, and displacement’,” a release by HRW’s Global Initiatives Director Micky Worden says. “But it doesn’t elaborate on the content of such assurances, despite extensive evidence that the government doesn’t adequately protect these rights.”
The organisation, along with many others, has noted in the past repeated and routine human rights abuses by both China and Kazakhstan. In both countries, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are strictly curtailed. Expression of dissent can lead to grave consequences.
Additionally, Kazakhstan just tried to pass a draconian bill aimed against gay and lesbian “propaganda”, reminiscent of the one passed in Russia in the leadup to the 2014 Sochi Games. After passing the senate, the bill was rejected by the country’s constitutional court, possibly in part because of an open letter by former athletes to Bach through the organisation Athlete Ally.
Hosting the winter Olympics is obviously very valuable to the country. But there has already been talk of reintroducing the bill, and the climate for LGBT people in Kazakhstan is one of fear.
A United Nations Special Rapporteur who recently visited Kazakhstan noted that government officials discuss freely how they limit the freedom of assembly because they fear a revolution, and also reported that she was filmed and photographed meeting with civil rights advocates by the secret police.
Meanwhile, human rights violations at the 2008 Games hosted by Beijing are well-documented, and there’s not much reason to believe that China would make any more improvements to its policies for 2022 than it did in 2008, unless there is some contractual obligation to do so.
In current Olympic host city contracts, it is clear that the IOC can rescind the right to host a Games from a chosen host city for several reasons, but human rights is not one of them.
That leaves the IOC with few options for enforcing its alleged focus on improving human dignity. HRW recently noted that the degree of oppression and restriction in China has only gotten worse since the 2008 Olympics.
“The Chinese government and Communist Party under President Xi Jinping have unleashed the harshest campaign of politically motivated investigations, detentions, and sentencing in the past decade, marking a sharp escalation in intolerance of criticism,” the group wrote in a release.
Besides the criticism by HRW, others are opposing the Beijing bid on similar grounds.
“As Tibetans, Uighurs, southern Mongolians and Han Chinese we join together to urge you … not to award another Olympic Games to China,” a different open letter said. “All of the people we represent have suffered as a result of the Chinese government’s contempt for human rights. We hope that you are aware by now that the 2008 Beijing Games did nothing to alleviate human rights abuses in China or enhance freedom.”
In press conferences for candidate city presentations in May, human rights did not come up in relation to the Beijing bid, and a question to the Almaty organizing committee was met with the response that Kazakhstan is a young country (it was only established after the breakup of the Soviet Union) and constantly striving for improvement.
Given that Beijing and Almaty are the only two cities which completed the bidding process (after numerous European bidders dropped out), the IOC has no choice but to award the Games to a country which does not uphold some of the basic tenets of the Olympic charter. That’s inevitable.
What human rights groups are hoping for, however, is that this time around they actually take the opportunity to force their chosen host city to improve.
“The 2022 Winter Games are when the rubber meets the road for the IOC in terms of backing core principles,” Worden, the HRW Global Initiatives director, wrote this week. “Knowing that either way the selection process goes, a serious rights abuser will host the Games, the IOC should require meaningful rights protection in host city contracts, and monitor those commitments as rigorously as it monitors stadium construction, telecommunications, and other requirements.”
Which bid will eventually win? Beijing is the favorite, but Almaty has a fighting chance.
Most recently, on July 18, Bach said that both bids are “coming to Olympic Agenda 2020 from very different angles, and so it will not be an easy decision for the IOC members to take.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.