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(New York) - With fewer than four months remaining until the start of the Beijing Games, corporate sponsors of the Olympics risk lasting damage to their brands if they do not live up to their professed standards of corporate social responsibility by speaking out about the deteriorating human rights situation in China, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Shareholders and consumers who care about human rights should not let Olympic corporate sponsors off the hook,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Program. “Their silence on abuses in the run-up to the Beijing Games makes their claims to support human rights especially disingenuous.”

The 12 highest-level corporate benefactors of the Beijing Games, known as the TOP sponsors (“The Olympic Partner”), are: Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric (GE), Manulife (parent company of John Hancock), Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, McDonald’s, Omega (Swatch Group), Panasonic (Matsushita), Samsung, and Visa.

GE is in an especially prominent position as a TOP Sponsor and the parent company of NBC, which is the US broadcaster of the Games. According to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) most recent quadrennial review, corporate sponsorships and broadcast fees accounted for 87 percent of IOC revenue from 2001-2004, and the TOP sponsors have paid at least $866 million total for the 2005-2008 period.

In advance of the Beijing Olympics, Human Rights Watch has documented an increase in human rights abuses directly related to preparations for the Games. Those include ongoing violations of media freedom and an intensifying persecution of Chinese human rights defenders who speak out publicly about the Games, as well as the ongoing crackdown in Tibetan areas.

The TOP sponsors have remained largely silent about these developments, despite their widely publicized commitments to the principles of corporate social responsibility and human rights. The Coca-Cola Company and General Electric, for example, are members of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), a group of companies that pledge to apply human rights principles in their businesses and urge other companies to do the same. General Electric’s own human rights policy states, “GE seeks to advance human rights by leading by example – through our interactions with customers and suppliers, the products we offer and our relationships with communities and governments.”

Since September 2007, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly corresponded with all of the TOP Sponsors and other sponsors (sample letters below), and has met with Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Lenovo, as well as Microsoft, which is an Olympics supplier. A meeting is scheduled with Visa.

“World leaders and even the IOC have belatedly started to speak out against rights abuses in China around the Games, but the companies are notably silent,” said Ganesan. “The Olympics are a key test for putting pledges of corporate social responsibility into action. To date, even companies with strong policies have failed that test.”

Despite their varying policies on corporate social responsibility, the sponsors are uniform in their eagerness to excuse themselves from saying anything about the deteriorating human rights situation in China. Several Olympic sponsors claim erroneously that human rights concerns are “political,” when in fact human rights provide the foundation on which legitimate political activity can take place.

“Human rights should be fundamental to any lawful society and serve as the bedrock principles of Olympism,” said Ganesan. “Particularly when abuses are a direct result of the Olympics, companies should never stay silent or try to dismiss the abuses as peripheral. The payment of tens of millions of dollars to sponsor the Olympic should increase the duty to speak out, rather than provide an excuse for cowardly silence.”

Human Rights Watch wrote to TOP sponsors in the fall of 2007 and again in March and April 2008 to ask companies to define their corporate policies and any action taken to address the deteriorating human rights climate in China. Human Rights Watch has urged the corporate sponsors to take six specific steps in line with their commitment to corporate social responsibility:

  • Make a public statement of support for the human rights dimensions of the Olympic Charter, which seeks to promote the “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” (first Fundamental Principle) and cites the “preservation of human dignity” as a major goal of Olympism (second Fundamental Principle);
  • Publicly certify that their operations in China do not entail labor abuses or other rights violations;
  • Urge the Chinese authorities to fulfill their human rights commitments made when the Games were awarded, in particular with regard to media freedom;
  • Urge the immediate release of courageous advocates who have been harassed, detained, and jailed due to Olympic-related criticisms;
  • Press the International Olympic Committee to establish a standing committee or mechanism to address human rights abuses in host countries; and,
  • Urge the Chinese government to allow an independent investigation of the recent crackdown in Tibet. The Olympic Torch should not pass through Tibetan areas in May and June 2008 unless there is such an investigation and foreign and Chinese journalists are permitted free access to these areas, in line with Beijing’s media freedom pledges. This recommendation was directed in particular toward the three sponsors of the Torch Relay, Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung.

None of the Olympic sponsors has acted on any of these recommendations, to the knowledge of Human Rights Watch.

“Companies are quite literally paying for these Games, so they can’t argue that they don’t have any responsibility to address abuses that taint the Olympics,” said Ganesan. “If companies aren’t going to act on their own human rights policies in the face of gross abuses, why have those policies at all?”

To view excerpts from TOP Sponsors’ corporate social responsibility policies, and their recent statements on human rights and the Olympics, please see:

To read samples of the letters from Human Rights Watch received by all TOP Sponsors, please see:

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