(New York) – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmation that future host city contracts will include an antidiscrimination requirement is an important step toward greater respect for human rights in global sport. This reform is one of several institutional changes Human Rights Watch and colleague rights groups recommended ahead of the “Olympic Agenda 2020” session to be held in Monaco in December 2014.
The IOC move is a rebuke to Russia, which passed a discriminatory law that fostered violence and stigma against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people ahead of the Sochi Winter Games, Human Rights Watch said. It is also a warning to Saudi Arabia, which bans sport for girls in state schools, and other countries that discriminate against women in sport.
“Some countries try to use the prestige of mega-sporting events to cover up their poor human rights records, so banning discrimination in host city contracts could have wide-ranging, positive effects,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But, of course, this should be the first of many steps toward ensuring that future host cities fully respect human dignity, as the Olympic Charter requires.”
The IOC has confirmed that the antidiscrimination clause will be added to section L of the host city contract’s preamble and informed the committees of the three finalists bidding for the 2022 Winter Games: Almaty (Kazakhstan), Beijing (China) and Oslo (Norway).
Beyond the Olympics, the organizers of other international “mega-sporting events” such as the Asia Games or the World Cup, administered by the soccer body FIFA, should take immediate steps to include a nondiscrimination clause in their host city contracts, Human Rights Watch said.
The letter from the IOC to the 2022 candidate cities specified that “an express reference was included to the prohibition of any form of discrimination, using the wording of Fundamental Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter.” This measure is in line with one of the key recommendations made in February by a coalition of rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, in open letters to the new IOC president, Thomas Bach.
“A year after taking office, Thomas Bach is changing the rules of the game,” said Worden. “This is the moment to affirm that human rights violations tarnish the Olympic movement and that major rights abusers should not assume they can win the right to host the Games.”
Before and during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Human Rights Watch documented serious rights violations that marred the Olympics, including abuses of migrant workers in the construction of venues and the preparations of the Games, restrictions on press freedom, and closing space for independent groups to operate.
Human Rights Watch research has also spotlighted Saudi Arabia’s continuing discrimination against female athletes, which violates the Olympic Charter.
“This new antidiscrimination clause should help break down barriers that stop women and girls from participating in sport,” said Worden. “And far beyond the Olympic host cities, this move should encourage all governments to ensure that women and girls have equal access to sports training, facilities, and associations.”
Saudi Arabia, in particular, should end its effective ban on women’s participation in sport, Human Rights Watch said. Although two Saudi women participated in the 2012 London Olympics, within Saudi Arabia there is no state sports infrastructure for women: all designated buildings, sports clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees are restricted to men. Alone in the world, Saudi Arabia bans girls from sports in government schools. These barriers mean that it is close to impossible for women to train for competition at an international level.
A reminder of this ongoing discrimination against women came this month, when Saudi Arabia failed to send any female athletes to the Asian Games. The Saudis sent an all-male team of 199 athletes, claiming, “Technically, we weren’t ready to introduce any ladies.”
In 2009 Human Rights Watch made a formal submission to the Copenhagen Olympic Congress, recommending the “creation of an IOC standing committee on human rights, or similar mechanism to monitor human rights in host countries.” In April 2014 Human Rights Watch made an expanded submission to be considered at the IOC session on the “Olympic Agenda 2020,” to be held in Monaco in December 2014. This submission recommended making future host city contracts public and including specific human rights benchmarks on media freedom and labor rights.
“This reform to bar discrimination is way overdue, so it’s also time for FIFA and all other major international sporting bodies to follow the IOC’s lead,” Worden said. “The message to countries that want to host the Olympics in the future is clear: clean up your human rights act.”