The Sochi winter Olympics are little more than six months away but bulldozers and cranes still dominate the site in southern Russia where skiers and skaters will soon perform. President Vladimir Putin’s prestige project, at an estimated $50bn, the most expensive Olympics on record, is facing a race against time to finish.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented widespread abuses directly linked to the preparation for the games. Migrant labourers who form a large section of the work force building the venues are every day being deprived of fair wages. Over 2,000 families have been evicted to make way for the Olympics. And there is a clampdown on local media and civil society ahead of the games.
The rush in Sochi to finish on time is not the only Olympic race currently underway. The outcome of the competition to become the IOC’s next president will certainly shape future Olympics games and whether their hosts protect human rights. The election, in mid-September, is being closely watched in Germany because Thomas Bach, German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) president, is a candidate for the top IOC job and is seen as a strong contender, according to media reports.
The Olympic charter reflects the importance of human rights, committing the movement to “the preservation of human dignity” even though the IOC has not always seen a clear role for itself in human rights protection in the context of Olympic Games. The charter also rejects discrimination in any form. Russia last month adopted a law that discriminates severely against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, a legal move that could also directly affect LGBT athletes in Sochi.
In 2009, after the focus on human rights at the Beijing Olympics, the IOC did go further by committing itself to intervene with Olympic hosts “in the event of serious abuse”. Sochi is the first major test since Beijing of this new approach and sadly the IOC is failing the test. Human Rights Watch has since 2009 provided clear evidence of abuses to the IOC and suggested concrete steps to ensure rights are protected on and around the Olympic site. In June, Human Rights Watch presented its findings the DOSB and we hope our constructive meeting will be followed by concrete action. Abuses in Sochi reflect negatively on the credibility of the entire Olympic movement.
Even in his current post, Mr Bach should speak out about human rights concerns on Sochi, and raise these issues in the IOC’s executive board. We expect all candidates to take a strong position on human rights and the Olympics, and Mr Bach could set the pace in this contest and argue for the highest possible human rights standards both in Sochi and in future Olympics.
Hugh Williamson is Director, Europe & Central Asia (ECA) division, Human Rights Watch.
Jane Buchanan is Associate Director, ECA, Human Rights Watch.