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Olympics: Next IOC Leader Should Back Rights Reforms

Presidential Candidates Need to Take a Stand Against Abuses

(New York) – The next president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should ensure that future host countries comply with human rights in full accordance with the Olympic Charter, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today. On August 2, 2013, Human Rights Watch and CPJ sent a letter to the six IOC presidential candidates asking for their views on several rights issues relevant to the Olympic Movement and in particular to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi, Russia.

The letter was sent ahead of theelection of the successor to current IOC president, Jacques Rogge, at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentinaon September 10. On August 23, Roggewill speak in New York City at the United Nations for the “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.”

“With less than six months before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Games, the Olympic Movement is facing a crisis over Russia’s failure to respect the Olympic Charter in Sochi,” said Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Just as the IOC assesses ice rinks and ski jumps, the new Olympics leader needs to press Russia to repeal a discriminatory law and address human rights violations before the Sochi Games.”

The six candidates for the IOC presidency are Thomas Bach (Germany), Sergey Bubka (Ukraine), Richard Carrión (Puerto Rico), Ser Miang Ng (Singapore), Denis Oswald (Switzerland), and Ching-Kuo Wu (Taiwan).

In the August 2 joint letter, Human Rights Watch and CPJ asked candidates to share their positions on human rights concerns, including urgent issues related to the Sochi Games. The letter invites candidates to comment on specific steps they would take regarding:

  • The recently enacted Russian law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality that violates portions of the Olympic charter requiring the “preservation of human dignity” and prohibiting members of the Olympic Movement, including host countries such as Russia, from practicing any form of discrimination;
  • Steps required to protect media freedom, in accordance with Rule 48 of the Olympic Charter;
  • Steps to curtail rights abuses related to Russia’s preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including evictions without fair compensation, abuses against migrant workers, and harassment of activists and media criticizing the Olympic preparations or other issues in Sochi; and
  • The need for systemic reform within the IOC, such as the Human Rights Watch proposal to create an IOC standing committee on human rights to monitor human rights in host countries.

“Just when Russia ought to welcome international guests for the Games, the Kremlin is legislating hostility to foreigners and cracking down on independent voices through restrictive new laws and a rhetoric of discrimination,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator at CPJ. “We call on the IOC to engage with Russian authorities on these pressing issues and urge them to decriminalize defamation, stop censoring the Internet, abandon their policy of harassment of independent journalists and human rights defenders, and address the lasting impunity in anti-press violence.”

Before, during, and after the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Human Rights Watch, CPJ, and other rights organizations met with the IOC to report a host of rights violations, including abuses of migrant workers building Olympic venues and infrastructure and the use of the Olympics as an excuse to dramatically expand the country’s security apparatus. The harsh clampdown on civil society and media and internet censorship in the run-up to and during the Beijing Olympics – with punishment for anyone trying to protest – interfered with reporting these abuses.

Human Rights Watch has since 2008 provided the IOC with detailed information on human rights abuses ahead of the Sochi Olympics through letters and meetings. These concerns include harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers building major Olympic venues (including the media center), and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.

“The IOC failed to hold China to its press freedom commitments during the Beijing Olympics and now it faces a similar challenge in Russia, a country that routinely disregards its human rights obligations,” said Joel Simon, executive director at CPJ. “The next IOC president must show leadership and adherence to the Olympic principles by ensuring that Russia repeals its repressive laws and upholds its human rights obligations, including on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

On August 15, the IOC replied to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists on behalf of the six candidates. Regarding the anti-LGBT law in Russia, the IOC stated: “Whilst we clearly expect any Olympic Games, regardless of their location and including the next edition in Sochi, to take place without any form of discrimination, it is important to stress that the IOC’s remit is limited to the scope of the Games. For instance, the IOC cannot influence national legislation and has to respect the law of any host country.”The letter also indicated the IOC’s general agreement that “ensuring human rights and media freedom in the context of the organization and staging of the Olympic Games is crucial.”

The letter did not include any specific responses from individual candidates. Some of the candidates have expressed their opinions about the anti-LGBT law in Russia when asked to comment by the media.

“As guardians of the Olympic flame, the IOC’s role is to take action in moments that threaten the Olympic movement,” Worden said. “The time to act is now.”


Joint letter sent by HRW and CPJ regarding Human Rights Abuses in Olympic Host Countries
August 2, 2013

Attn: Candidates for International Olympic Committee Presidency

c/o International Olympic Committee
Château de Vidy
1007 Lausanne, Switzerland

Subject: Questionnaire for All Candidates for IOC Presidency Regarding Olympic Values and Human Rights   

We are writing with regard to the upcoming election of the next International Olympic Committee President, at the 125th IOC session which will take place on September 10 in Buenos Aires.

Both Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists are deeply concerned about serious human rights abuses linked to the organization of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including the worsening climate for media freedom in Russia, and more broadly about the risk of similar abuses in future host countries in the absence of systemic reforms within the Olympic Movement.

The International Olympic Committee is the “supreme authority of the Olympic movement.” The guiding principle of Olympism is enshrined in the Olympic Charter placing “sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”  A report from the 2009 13th Olympic Congress specifies that “all members of the Olympic Movement should work together in pursuit of the harmonious development of men and women in order to promote through sport a peaceful society based on the most fundamental common principles and values inherent in a civilized society.” For the implementation of this recommendation, the IOC committed to intervening at the level of the Olympic Games Organizing Committees “in the event of serious abuse,” including: “Mistreatment of people displaced due to Olympic venue construction; Abuse of migrant workers at Olympic venue construction sites; Child labour; and Improper restrictions on the media’s freedom to cover the Games, including cultural aspects.”

Since 2006, in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, Human Rights Watch has been pressing the IOC to address Olympics-related human rights violations, including through letters, meetings, and official submissions. In 2009, in advance of the Olympic Congress in Copenhagen, Human Rights Watch made a detailed submission calling on the members of the Olympic Movement to create a permanent mechanism to monitor human rights in host countries before, during, and after the Olympic Games. Human Rights Watch has also reported on and advocated strongly for the nondiscrimination requirements of the Olympic Charter, including for women from Saudi Arabia to participate in the London Olympics and against the Russian government’s anti-LGBT rights legislation. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has brought delegations of concerned journalists to Lausanne and Beijing to advocate for media and Internet freedoms, which is an ironclad requirement for all host countries.

With regards to Sochi 2014, CPJ is particularly concerned about the growing anti-press and anti-freedom-of-expression climate in Russia, which is being nurtured from the very top. CPJ is also concerned about the Kremlin-fostered anti-foreign moods in society – not a healthy attitude when the country is on the threshold of embracing international athletes, reporters, and other visitors for the Games. Recent anti-press actions include the re-criminalization of defamation and the censoring of the Internet, the continued threats and attacks on journalists, the ongoing journalist murders, and the lasting impunity in such cases.

Impunity concerns are the highest in killings committed in Russia’s North Caucasus region, which neighbors Sochi. With the volatile region in such close proximity to the Games site, CPJ is concerned about security issues being used as pretext to obstruct journalist access to local news and events of public interest.

Because the new IOC president will be tasked with upholding the essential principles of the Olympic Charter, we believe that the selection process should include a clear explanation of each candidate’s views on key questions related to these principles.  We have prepared a set of questions, and urge each candidate to respond.  We will be making these responses public. 

Six questions for IOC Presidency Candidates

1. On the Second Fundamental Principle of Olympism

According to the Second Fundamental Principle of Olympism, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

  • As IOC President, what specific measures would you take to ensure that the selection of future host countries fully and meaningfully evaluates governments’ commitment to respect human rights in compliance with this principle and international human rights norms?

2. On the principle of nondiscrimination

The Sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

  • As IOC President, what specific measures would you require future host countries and participating nations to undertake in order to ensure full respect for the principle of nondiscrimination, for example by ensuring that women or LGBT athletes from all participating nations can compete in the Olympics? How would you ensure that the safety of LGBT athletes and guests to the Olympics is guaranteed when a Games host country criminalizes homosexuality?

3. On the principle of media freedom

As specified by Rule 48 of the Olympic Charter, “The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.”

  • As IOC President, what specific steps would you require from host countries to ensure media are allowed to pursue “the fullest coverage,” without restrictions, by allowing both domestic and foreign journalists to report freely, including on potential rights abuses occurring in the context of the Games (in the run-up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the Games)? How would you have handled the Chinese government’s failure to allow the promised Internet and reporting freedom before and during the 2008 Games? 

4. On human rights concerns related to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

As the IOC is well aware, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have serious concerns that we have expressed and reported on over a period of four years regarding ongoing rights abuses related to preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including abuses against migrant workers described in the report “Race to the Bottom,” forced evictions, the crackdownon press and civil society, and a pernicious, homophobic new law.

  • As IOC President, what specific steps will you take to insist on media freedoms, an end to threats against civil society, and a repeal of homophobic laws in Russia, where the Sochi Games are to take place?  What steps will you take to ensure people are not forcibly evicted from their homes without compensation and that workers building Olympic venues are not exploited?

5. On the need for systemic reform of the Olympic Movement

Human Rights Watch submitted a proposal for systemic reform to the 2009 Copenhagen Congress, calling for the “creation of an IOC standing committee on human rights to monitor human rights in host countries.” A recent report by CPJ found that a consistent stance on basic rights would bolster the IOC’s position, not erode it; hesitance to promote human rights tarnishes the Olympics.

  • As IOC President, what specific steps will you take to support the creation of such a committee or similar mechanism to monitor human rights abuses caused by the Olympics and to ensure that the human rights requirements of host countries, including press freedom and nondiscrimination, are honored?

6.  Willingness to meet with Olympic stakeholders

To discuss these and other concerns, we are requesting a briefing session with all candidates to brief you on research into human rights abuses created by or linked to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and past Olympics, and to give you an opportunity to set out your position in relation to press freedom and human rights inthe Olympic movement.  We have staff around the world and can meet in New York or any convenient capital. 

  • As candidate for IOC President, will you be able to meet us? Will your manifesto include human rights as a central plank?

We look forward to your answers and thank you in advance for your attention to these concerns.


Minky Worden                                                          Jane Buchanan       
Director of Global Initiatives                                Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch                                             Human Rights Watch           

Joel Simon                                                                 Nina Ognianova
Executive Director                                                   Program Coordinator, Europe and Central Asia
Committee to Protect Journalists                        Committee to Protect Journalists

Cc: Mark Adams, IOC Communications Director

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