(New York) - The major corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics have failed to uphold their own principles of corporate social responsibility, Human Rights Watch said today. Sponsors have failed to speak out – either individually or collectively – about human rights abuses linked to the Beijing Games, and should be prepared to support the establishment of a permanent body inside the International Olympic Committee to monitor rights abuses at future Olympics.

The 12 TOP (“The Olympic Partner”) sponsors of the Beijing Games are Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Manulife, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, McDonald’s, Omega (Swatch Group), Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa. Over the last 12 months, Human Rights Watch repeatedly contacted all TOP sponsors and met with five of these companies, off the record. The other seven failed to respond to repeated requests to meet with Human Rights Watch. In its meetings and correspondence with the 12 TOP sponsors, Human Rights Watch documented numerous human rights violations related to the Beijing Games, including ongoing media censorship, the abuse of migrant construction workers who built the Olympic venues, and the unlawful forced evictions of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens from their homes to make way for these venues. Yet the sponsors were unwilling to address these abuses.

“The Olympic sponsors claim to be good corporate citizens,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But as they enjoy the Games from the comfort of their seats at the Olympic stadium, they should reflect on their failure to speak up for the Chinese citizens who built the stadium and their hotels, clean their hotel rooms, serve their meals or, in the case of Chinese journalists, try to bring them their news.”

One corporate executive told Human Rights Watch, “It is not our comfort zone to criticize countries.” Another said: “That is the role of human rights organizations. In this respect we are from Mars, you’re from Venus.” (See appendix for examples of other statements by corporate representatives.) Yet such statements contradict the corporate social responsibility policies espoused in principle by several TOP sponsors’ websites. For example, the “GE Citizenship” section of General Electric’s website proclaims that, “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.” Increasingly, General Electric’s customers are Chinese citizens, who face systematic abuses.

The Olympic sponsors’ silence on human rights abuses is more pronounced given that they have collectively spent about US$866 million to gain status as TOP sponsors. Human Rights Watch has urged the TOP Olympic sponsors to take six specific steps in line with their commitment to corporate social responsibility:

  • Publicly voice their support for the human rights dimensions of the Olympic Charter, which seeks to promote the “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” and the “preservation of human dignity”;
  • Publicly certify that their operations in China do not entail labor abuses or other rights violations;
  • Request that the Chinese authorities fulfill their human rights commitments made when the Games were awarded, in particular with regard to media freedom;
  • Urge the release of human rights activists such as Hu Jia, co-author of an open letter titled “The Real China and the Olympics”;
  • Support an independent investigation of the March 2008 crackdown in Tibet (a recommendation directed in particular toward Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung, sponsors of the Torch Relay, which passed through Tibet); and,
  • Press the IOC to establish a standing committee or mechanism to address human rights abuses in future host countries, including Russia, which will host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

Human Rights Watch said that there is no evidence that any of the Olympic sponsors has followed up in any meaningful way on any of these recommendations. This inaction contradicts the principles of corporate social responsibility described in these companies’ annual reports and on their websites, as well as the standards of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), a group to which General Electric and Coca-Cola belong. General Electric is in an especially prominent and influential position as a TOP Sponsor and the parent company of NBC, which is the US broadcaster of the Games and has paid most for Olympics-related coverage. Coca-Cola, one of the sponsors of the torch relay, defended the passage of the torch in Tibet despite the repression of protests there in March 2008 and the continuing media clampdown in that region. Coca-Cola’s chairman Neville Isdell told the BBC on July 7, “I believe the Olympics are a force for good and if they were not a force for good, we would not sponsor them.”

Yet, as Human Rights Watch and other groups have extensively documented in the last 12 months, the Olympics cannot so far be qualified as a “force for good” in China. The run-up to the Beijing Games was marred by a worsening of human rights violations in China, and, since the August 8 opening of the Games, the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on human rights defenders, has denied access to protest zones, and has reneged on promised media and internet freedom guarantees. In the run-up to the Olympics launch, foreign correspondents were beaten, detained, and subjected to death threats. Thousands of “undesirables” including beggars, petitioners, and migrant workers were forcibly removed from the streets of Beijing. More information on the deteriorating human rights climate in China can be found here.

“Being a good corporate sponsor of the Beijing Games has sadly not meant being a good corporate citizen,” said Richardson. “The sponsors’ silence has only emboldened the Chinese government and allowed the IOC to ignore the human rights standards it claims to uphold.”

To view excerpts from TOP Sponsors’ corporate social responsibility policies, and their statements on human rights as well as the Olympics, please click here.

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

Quotes from Human Rights Watch’s meetings with Olympic sponsors

Human Rights Watch held meetings with five of the 12 TOP sponsors. The following quotes from corporate executives are given as illustrative examples, with no attribution to respect confidentiality, since several meetings were off-the-record.

One company’s refusal to describe any discussions it may have had with its Chinese interlocutors on human rights issues:

“What’s said in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Three companies (including one sponsor of the torch relay through Lhasa) explaining their silence on the repression in Tibet:

“Do we want to be associated with a firestorm? No, we do not.”

“In the context of the Olympics, Tibet is not relevant. None of the Olympics takes place in Tibet. The Games are not in Tibet.”

“It would not make sense for us to raise the issue of Tibet with our Chinese interlocutors. The Chinese think that corporate sponsors do not have a dog in this fight.”

One company’s “sole purpose”:

“What we recognize is that as a legal entity we don’t have the same position as people. Our sole purpose as a company is to make money for shareholders... To make money, we need to protect the brand. It’s a complex set of equations. What our prime purpose is not is to advocate human rights.”

One company’s “comfort zone” regarding human rights:

“Our commitment to human rights is in our area of how we treat employees. Our human rights policy does not address the policies of foreign governments. It is not our comfort zone to criticize countries.”

One company’s refusal to be “global spokespersons for causes”:

“We are not in business to be global spokespersons for causes. That is the role of human rights organizations. In this respect we are from Mars, you’re from Venus.”

One company’s view of “appropriate roles and responsibilities”:

“It would be inappropriate for us to take up human rights issues around the Olympics. The question is about appropriate roles and responsibilities.”

One company’s exclusion of “embarrassing” candidates from a sponsored program related to the Beijing Games:

“We won’t pick the relative of an imprisoned Chinese activist. You are asking us to choose someone who would embarrass the Chinese government. This would generate unwanted media coverage on an issue which is not our direct concern.”