August 16, 2008

HONG KONG -- While the world follows the exploits of the China Olympics, journalists and athletes in Beijing have only limited access to what the world is saying about China. They can easily log on to any Web site covering the latest athletic feats, but may find their efforts thwarted if they try to read online commentary on the numerous human rights violations linked to Beijing's acting as host of these Olympic Games.

In spite of pledges of media and Internet freedom made to the International Olympic Committee while bidding for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese authorities are continuing to block access to Web sites of some international human rights organizations, press freedom groups and overseas Chinese-language news Web sites. Reneging on promises to allow peaceful public criticism, Beijing is cynically using designated protest zones as bait to snare any would-be critics.

Before the Games began this summer, the president of the Olympic committee, Jacques Rogge, asserted that the IOC "carried out the only kind of diplomacy that works in China - silent diplomacy."

But what has this strategy achieved? The prelude to the Beijing Games was marred by a major crackdown on free speech and dissent, a massive sweep of "undesirables" from the host city, and increasing abuses of ethnic minority Tibetans and Uighurs. We'd likely know more if not for the government's failure to fully implement its own temporary regulations giving foreign media much greater freedom to work in China.

"We obtained a new law on the media," Rogge told Agence France-Presse in July. "For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet."

Yet over the last two years, Human Rights Watch and other press freedom organizations have documented hundreds of incidents of harassment, detentions and even death threats to foreign journalists in China. And, of course, conditions are much worse for Chinese reporters, with China still the world's leading jailer of journalists.

An unnamed Olympic committee official admitted to The New York Times in July, "Had the IOC, and those vested with the decision to award the host city contract, known seven years ago that there would be severe restrictions on people being able to enter China simply to watch the Olympics, or that live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square would essentially be banned, or that reporters would be corralled at the whim of local security, then I seriously doubt whether Beijing would have been awarded the Olympics."

So before the Beijing pageantry ends, the lesson is clear: Voluntary pledges cannot be enforced; there need to be permanent rights mechanisms in place to make sure Olympian promises match deeds.

The IOC is no stranger to creating new structures to deal with its failings. In the 1980s, major doping scandals led to negative headlines and the forced return of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's gold medal. To save the Olympic movement, the IOC helped set up the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The corruption scandal that tainted the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City led to the expulsions and sanctions of some 20 Olympic committee members. The IOC set up an ethics committee in the wake of the public outcry.

In view of China's failure to follow through on its human rights pledges, Human Rights Watch has outlined to the IOC the need to create a committee charged with assessing the human rights records of bidding countries, particularly with respect to press freedom, an independent judiciary and labor rights. This body could then monitor the selected host country's progress toward improving its human rights record, just as the IOC currently audits sports venue completion. Such periodic rights audits in China would certainly have saved Rogge a lot of headaches.

This reform is urgent. The 2014 Winter Games were awarded to the Russian city of Sochi - only 15 miles from Russia's border with Georgia, where a deadly conflict with the future Olympic host erupted just as the Beijing Games began.

The Olympics-related rights violations well documented in China - forced evictions, abuse of migrant workers, repression of civil society - will almost certainly be replayed in Russia. But it could get even uglier: In Russia, journalists are not only harassed, they are sometimes murdered.

Before the final medal is awarded at the 2008 Games, the IOC could do itself a big favor by setting out clear and transparent human rights benchmarks for future Olympics.

Minky Worden is Media Director for Human Rights Watch.