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Russia: IOC Should Address Deteriorating Rights Climate

Officials Rave about Olympic Buildings; Ignore Abuse, Exploitation of Citizens

(Moscow) – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) missed a key chance to publicly press the Russian government on human rights abuses linked to its preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Human Rights Watch said today. At a press conference to mark the end of a three-day visit to Sochi, the IOC’s Coordinating Commission called the Russian government’s preparations for the Games ‘impeccable,’ but made no reference to human rights abuses tied to the preparations for the 2014 Games.

“The IOC’s praise for the Russian government’s Olympics preparations should have been tempered with caution about the deteriorating human rights climate in Russia,” said Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC has a crucial role to play in ensuring the Games aren’t marred by abuses and simply isn’t doing enough.”

The IOC’s Coordinating Commission is tasked with evaluating the Russian government’s technical preparations for the Games, including venue and infrastructure construction. Former French Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy, who chairs the commission, said of these preparations: “It all bodes well for a successful season of test events ahead, as well as for a great legacy left behind for the local population.”The commission last visited Sochi in February 2012.

“The IOC has a lot of technical requirements to evaluate on its periodic trips to Sochi, and scrutinizing credible reports of human rights abuses is clearly within that mandate,” said Worden. “For example, looking at an Olympic venue should raise questions not only about construction details, but also about the treatment of workers building the site and the people evicted to clear the land for construction.”

Human Rights Watch has been researching human rights abuses in and around Sochi in the context of Russia’s preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics since 2009. Abuses Human Rights Watch has documented include:

  • Forced evictions and illegal land expropriations of some residents relocated to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure without adequate compensation;
  • Exploitation of  some migrant workers working on Olympic sites and other construction projects;
  • Harassment and intimidation of journalists and activists who have sought to report on or protest Olympics-related concerns.

The climate for human rights activists and others who criticize government policies in Russia has deteriorated significantly in recent months. The Russian parliament has passed a number of legislative amendments imposing new restrictions on public assemblies, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content. A law adopted in July forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in “political work” and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

In response to a media question about the IOC’s position on human rights in September 2012, IOC President Jacques Rogge outlined the Olympic governing body’s principles: “The position of the International Olympic Committee on human rights is a very clear one: Whenever these human rights touch an issue of the Games’ organization, we ask the local government to remedy and to find solutions to improve that.” Rogge said that the IOC would work “together with the NGOs responsible.”

“The IOC’s commitment to raise concern about human rights abuses is an important step forward,” Worden said. “But the climate for NGOs in Russia has become deeply hostile.  If the IOC sees NGOs as making important contributions to its work, then it should make it clear to the Russian authorities that the intimidation and harassment need to stop immediately.” 

Human Rights Watch said that the IOC has taken action on a handful of concrete cases and achieved some positive results, but that these steps have not been enough to prevent ongoing serious rights violations occurring as a direct result of the preparation for the Games in Sochi. 

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