International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at an interview in Berlin on July 31, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(New York) – The election of Thomas Bach as the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) president should open a new day in the enforcement of human rights principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter.

Bach succeeds Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year tenure as IOC president was marred by human rights abuses linked to the Olympics in host countries including Russia and China, which flouted requirements for non-discrimination and press freedom.

“The serious – and preventable – human rights violations during the 2008 Beijing Games and the ongoing abuses in Russia ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games highlight the need for an IOC leader with the vision to put human rights reforms in place and the will to enforce them,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

The abuses documented ahead of both the Beijing and Sochi Games include the exploitation of migrant workers engaged in Olympic construction, forced evictions of families without fair compensation, a media crackdown, and pressure on civil society activists critical of the government.

Russia’s June 2013 anti-gay law blatantly violates the Olympic principle of non-discrimination and curtails the rights of athletes, sponsors, journalists, and spectators, as well as other Russian citizens and foreign visitors to free expression and equal treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

The IOC has refused to press Russia to repeal the law. It has only sought and received “assurances” from the Russian authorities that Sochi Games participants would not face discrimination. At the same time, the Russian authorities have stated repeatedly that the discriminatory law will be applied to anyone in Russia, including Olympic visitors.

“When athletes break the rules in Olympic competitions, they are harshly sanctioned,” Worden said. “When host countries flout the rules, the IOC should speak up, rather than declaring itself helpless to take action.”

Bach, in his new role as IOC president, should adopt a principled approach to upholding the Olympic Charter, Human Rights Watch said. This should include establishing an IOC standing committee to monitor human rights, such as the one outlined in a 2009 Human Rights Watch proposal. The IOC should also ensure that future host countries have to meet benchmarks for compliance with human rights principles and the Olympic Charter, as they already do for the quality of ski jumps or swimming pools.

“In Olympic sporting events – or even after-school soccer – the governing principle is that everyone has to play by the rules,” Worden said. “When China and Russia broke the rules under Rogge’s watch, there was no sanction, setting up a dangerous double standard for host countries. Bach has an opportunity to set his stamp on the IOC presidency by making it clear that countries who win the right to host the Olympics should meet its high standards.”

Human Rights Watch called on the IOC and President Bach to defend three basic principles featured in the Olympic Charter:

  • The principle of human dignity, a key component of 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”).The selection of future host countries should involve a complete and meaningful evaluation of governments’ commitment to respect human rights in compliance with this principle and international human rights norms, for example through the establishment of a new IOC human rights mechanism outlined by Human Rights Watch at the 2009 Copenhagen Congress;
  • The principle of non-discrimination, as clearly defined by the Sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism(“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”). The IOC should ensurethat all athletes, including women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) athletes, from all participating nations, can compete in the Olympics. In this spirit, the IOC, under Bach’s leadership, should call on Russia to repeal its anti-LGBT legislation and refrain from adopting any other discriminatory laws and policies that violate the Olympic Charter and international human rights standards; and
  • The principle of media freedom, as set forth in 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”). The IOC should require all current and future host countries to allow both domestic and foreign journalists to report freely, including on rights abuses occurring in the context of the Olympics – in the run-up to, during, and after the Games.

“Jacques Rogge repeatedly said during his tenure at the helm of the IOC that the Olympics are a ‘force for good,’” Worden said. “His successor, Thomas Bach, by focusing on the human rights implications of both Summer and Winter Games, can transform these lofty words into reality.”