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Letter to President Obama on Rights Reform in the Olympic Movement

Copenhagen Congress Offers Unique Opportunity to Ensure Future Host Countries Respect Human Rights

Text of the letter sent by Human Rights Watch to President Obama, on the occasion of his attendance of the 2009 Copenhagen Olympic Congress: 

October 1, 2009
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Subject: Copenhagen Olympic Congress and Rights Reform

Dear Mr. President,
We write as you depart for Copenhagen to attend the 121st Session of the International Olympic Committee, which will precede the Copenhagen Olympic Congress.
While the main purpose of your visit will be to support Chicago's bid for the 2016 Summer Games, this visit will also provide you with a unique opportunity to support long-term human rights improvement in the Olympic Movement.
Friday's announcement of the winning bid for the 2016 Olympics will be followed by a three-day Congress, only the 13th in the history of the history of the Olympics. The previous Congress was held in Paris in 1994, and led to substantial environment-related reforms.
The Copenhagen Congress also marks the first time that members of the public as well as organizations were invited to contribute submissions on a variety of themes, and to participate in the public sessions. Human Rights Watch has submitted a proposal for a standing IOC committee on human rights, or similar mechanism with expertise to monitor host countries' human rights before, during and after the Olympics.
The genesis of our proposal was the fact, extensively documented by Human Rights Watch, that the Beijing Games led to a marked deterioration of human rights in China, and our concern that Russia's hosting of the 2016 Sochi Games could result in similar abuses unless a mechanism is rapidly established to monitor potential rights violations.
China's hosting of the Beijing Games led to a marked worsening of human rights, including:

· Forced evictions: The construction of Olympic venues and infrastructure led to the forced evictions of thousands of Beijing residents from their homes, with no due process in terms of either consultation or compensation.
· Abuse of migrant workers:  Many of the estimated one million migrant construction workers who built these Olympic venues labored in dangerous conditions, earning meager wages which in some cases were not even paid. Workers seeking to recover unpaid wages had practically no means of redress.
· Repression of dissent: The Chinese government intensified its repression of dissent in the period leading up to the Games, and during the Beijing Olympics. Human rights advocates and critics of the Olympics were arrested and sentenced to prison. Protests in Tibet were violently repressed. Even people who legally applied for the right to protest during the Olympics were arrested and jailed.
· Media/Internet censorship: The Chinese government intensified its censorship of the media and Internet, sometimes with deadly consequences. Censorship of news concerning melamine-poisoned milk during the Olympics contributed to the sickening of nearly 300,000 Chinese children and the death of at least six infants.
Human Rights Watch has undertaken several research missions in Sochi, and uncovered early signs of rights abuses in Russia linked to preparations for the Sochi Games, including expropriations of private homes and property without adequate compensation or resettlement options and a general lack of transparency and recourse as to challenging government actions. Human Rights Watch has also begun to document violations of the rights of workers involved in the Olympic construction, such as withheld wages, excessively long working hours, and hazardous working conditions.
Above all, Human Rights Watch is concerned about the recent killings of rights advocates and journalists in the Caucasus region where the Sochi Games will take place. On July 15, unidentified assailants murdered Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights activist in Chechnya. On August 10, two civil society activists, Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov were abducted from their office in Chechnya at gunpoint by men claiming to be from "security services."  Their bodies with bullet wounds were found several hours later in the trunk of Dzhabrailov's car.  On August 11, in neighboring Dagestan, a journalist known for his criticism of government authorities, Abdulmalik Akhmedilov, was shot by an unidentified gunman. These targeted attacks all point to a disturbing climate of violence and impunity in Russia, at odds with the Olympic Charter's insistence on the respect for press freedom and "universal fundamental ethical principles."  
Three years of research and advocacy to on the importance of human rights to the Olympic movement have led Human Rights Watch to propose that the International Olympic Committee establish a standing committee to monitor human rights in host countries.  Such a committee would help set and apply human rights benchmarks with regard to media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and civil liberties. We also recommend that future Host City Contracts be made public. I have enclosed a copy of our proposal, which is also online here:  
We will be presenting our proposal at the Copenhagen Congress's session on the theme "Good governance and ethics," under which it was filed, on October 4. Among the early supporters of our proposal is Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City when this city hosted the 2002 Winter Games.
Mr. President, we respectfully urge to also support our proposal for rights reform within the Olympic Movement. Your backing would help ensure that future Olympics will truly live up to the principle of the "preservation of human dignity" enshrined in the Olympic Charter.
We hope that we can count on your support, and thank you in advance.
Minky Worden  
Media Director
Human Rights Watch

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