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The International Olympic Committee Skating on Thin Ice in Sochi

Published in: Huffington Post

In a recent interview, the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach addressed human rights concerns related to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He pointed to "regular contacts" between the IOC and Human Rights Watch on some of these issues, including labor rights abuses.

Since 2009, Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses linked to Russia's preparations for the 2014 Winter Games. In this time, we have indeed regularly briefed the IOC about our concerns. We have repeatedly presented the IOC with detailed evidence of the exploitation of construction workers, evictions of residents without fair compensation, harassment of activists and journalists critical of the Games, as well as Russia's discriminatory anti-LGBT propaganda law.

Against that background it's worth comparing what Bach says has been achieved, and what the IOC has -- and has not -- done to address human rights issues.

Throughout our engagement with the IOC, it has diligently shared evidence of human rights abuses in Sochi with the Russian authorities, and reported the government's response back to Human Rights Watch. While this represents important progress since the IOC's past reluctance to engage on human rights -- for example ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- the IOC's current "postmaster" role has not led to meaningful change in the human rights situation in Sochi ahead of the Games.

For the most part, Human Rights Watch's concerns were met either with rebuff, obfuscation or outright misinformation from the Russian government, and the IOC consistently accepted the Russian government's position at face value.

Bach's recent statements largely follow that pattern.

He says that, on the basis of contacts with Human Rights Watch, the IOC made an "initiative" to address the exploitation of construction workers employed on Olympic facilities in Sochi. This led, he says, to a meeting within the Russian government and a decision to pay unpaid wages worth $8.34 million to some of some of these workers.

This payment is really meaningful, and without the last-minute labor inspections in December 2013 of 10 companies that led to this Russian government decision, those workers toiling hard on Olympic sites for these companies would probably not have been paid money owed them.

But the question remains: what about the countless other workers in precisely the same situation who were exploited on Sochi sites but who were expelled from Russia or left without the wages owed to them? An untold number of them experienced the exact same forms of exploitation uncovered by the authorities on this handful of sites in December 2013. Why did the IOC and Russian government only confront this issue in the final weeks before the Opening Ceremonies? Why wasn't the IOC listening and acting on the detailed, credible evidence of these abuses Human Rights Watch presented to the IOC in writing repeatedly from 2009 through 2013, including in a 67-page February 2013 report that named numerous key Olympic sites and companies implicated in exploitation of migrant workers? At that time the IOC claimed that the report's information was too vague to act upon.

If the Russian government and IOC uncovered $8.34 million in wage arrears in a single round of inspections in late 2013, just imagine the impact had inspections started when Human Rights Watch began presenting the evidence.

Bach also says that based on communication with Human Rights Watch, the IOC addressed the devastating consequences of Olympic construction for the Sochi mountain village of Akhshtyr, including the destruction of drinking water wells and severing the village from key road links, meaning impossible commutes for villagers to get to work and school.

The IOC said that it raised the situation with the Russian organizing committee and "the authorities have promised to help." Villagers recently reported that a school bus appeared in the village to take children to school and some modest road repairs were under way.

But today, as the Olympics are set to open with global fanfare, Akhshtyr still remains without a reliable source of drinking water and has since 2009, when Human Rights Watch first raised the issue urgently with the IOC. Looking at these facts, can Bach really claim the IOC has done all it can? It hasn't, but it still clearly could.

The IOC alone has leverage to fix this catastrophe, and the villagers of Akhshtyr are still desperately waiting, with the IOC as their last and only hope.

Since President Bach appears so appreciative of Human Rights Watch's engagement with the IOC, he would do well to also give meaningful attention to our call, first made in 2009, for the IOC to establish a mechanism to set benchmarks and monitor future Olympic host cities' protection of human rights.

Such procedures are the only way for the IOC to give meaning to its own Olympic Charter, which says the Olympics are about the "preservation of human dignity."

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