Oral statement at the panel on sporting events
February 27, 2012

We welcome the convening of this panel discussion on how major sporting events can contribute to human rights. Human Rights Watch has long taken the position that there cannot be successful sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, in an environment where serious human rights abuses are occurring. 

In 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch extensively documented human rights abuses linked to China's hosting of the 2008 Beijing Games, including forced evictions, abuses of migrant workers, media censorship, and a clampdown on civil society. Despite the Chinese government's pledges to the International Olympic Committee that the Games would bring rights improvements, these Olympics led directly to an overall deterioration of human rights in China.

This month, Human Rights Watch released a new report documenting the effective ban on women and girls playing sports or taking part in the Olympic Games in Saudi Arabia. Girls are not offered physical education in state schools, women’s gyms have been closed down or allowed to operate only as health clubs attached to hospitals. No competitive sporting infrastructure for women exists. Neither the Saudi National Olympic Committee nor any of the 153 government-regulated sport clubs have a women’s section. It is no surprise, therefore, that the kingdom is one of three countries never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee should condition Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Games on ending discrimination against women in sports, in line with kingdom’s obligations under CEDAW and CRC.

Since 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses in the Olympic site of Sochi, Russia. Harassment against civil society activists and independent bloggers that have been part of the broader political landscape in Russia also takes place against activists in Sochi who are critical of the authorities’ preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. In addition, Human Rights Watch has documented cases of migrant workers working on construction sites in Sochi who have been denied contracts and wages and who faced retaliation for protesting these violations. Human Rights Watch has also documented the authorities’ unlawful expropriations and forced evictions to make way for Olympic venues and related infrastructure. The government has failed to consistently provide home owners whose properties are expropriated for Olympics-related projects with fair compensation or an effective mechanism to challenge the evictions. The IOC, the UN, and Russia’s other international partners should press Russia to ensure that it conducts its Olympic preparations in line with its obligations under the ICCPR, ICESCR, and relevant ILO conventions and standards.

The International Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors have a clear responsibility to anticipate and address human rights abuses linked to the Olympics.  But the IOC and other sporting bodies do not have institutions or individuals tasked with monitoring human rights abuses.  Given the ugly legacy of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and concerns about future Olympics, will this committee support Human Rights Watch’s proposal for rights reform and monitoring within the International Olympic Committee?