(New York) – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should ensure that the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics fully respects human rights commitments in preparing for and hosting of the games, Human Rights Watch said today. Both countries in the running to host the games, China and Kazakhstan, have extremely poor human rights records. The IOC is to select the host city on July 31, 2015, at its 128th IOC Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Whether China or Kazakhstan wins the honor of hosting the 2022 Winter Games, the IOC will face an extreme test of its new commitment to improve human rights protections,” said Minky Worden, Global Initiatives director at Human Rights Watch. “The International Olympic Committee should insist that the host country rigorously comply with the Olympic Charter and basic human rights rules – or risk losing the right to host the games.”

Delegations from China and Kazakhstan take part in a group photo after the briefing for International Olympic Committee (IOC) members by the 2022 Winter Olympic Games candidate cities of Beijing and Almaty at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland on June 9, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

Chinese and Kazakh authorities are openly hostile to media and activists who criticize the government and fail to protect freedom of expression, assembly, and association and other basic human rights. Discrimination and labor violations, and government failure to combat them, are serious concerns. Neither country provides effective, independent judicial mechanisms for people seeking protection from abuse.

Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has documented serious human rights abuses by Olympic host countries and hosts of other major sporting events in the preparations and staging of games, including in China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Qatar. When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, authorities forcibly evicted thousands to build Olympic sites without due process or adequate compensation, and violated its obligations to respect press freedom and allow peaceful protest. The 2008 Beijing Games were also a catalyst for government violations of labor rights and its expansion of abusive, unaccountable domestic security forces.

In December 2014, the IOC adopted reforms known as Olympic Agenda 2020. These include specific requirements for host cities to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and ensure labor rights and other human rights protections. The Olympic Charter requires all hosts to uphold press freedom and identifies “human dignity” as an essential part of the Olympic movement. However, the IOC has no human rights monitoring mechanisms in place to measure a host country’s respect for these rules.

“The 2022 Winter Games are when the rubber meets the road for the IOC in terms of backing core principles,” Worden said. “Knowing that either way the selection process goes, a serious rights abuser will host the Games, the IOC should require meaningful rights protection in host city contracts, and monitor those commitments as rigorously as it monitors stadium construction, telecommunications, and other requirements.”

The IOC visited both countries earlier in 2015 to evaluate conditions as part of the bid process. But the official reports did not adequately identify the serious human rights concerns. The China report says the inspection commission raised media freedom and Internet access with Chinese authorities and obtained “written assurances” that there would be “no restrictions,” concluding that there are “no … identified” risks to “media operations.”

But China is a leading Internet censor, and has recently shuttered even the virtual private networks used by many journalists. There is no indication that the commission consulted individuals or groups in China that could provide an independent or critical view of the government’s policies. One such group, the anti-discrimination nongovernmental organization Yirenping, has faced repeated harassment, and authorities detained its representatives during the country’s Olympic bid evaluation period. IOC commission members neither met with the group nor publicly expressed concern about government hostility toward a group whose work is critical to monitoring the government’s compliance with nondiscrimination commitments.

“We’ve already seen one Olympic Games fuel human rights abuses in China, and the environment in 2015 is significantly worse than it was in 2008,” Worden said.

For Kazakhstan, the inspection commission report fails to acknowledge serious potential risks regarding worker rights protections, media freedom, and freedom of assembly. Its report claims that the government provided “assurances regarding the right to demonstrate, media freedom to report on the Games and Games preparations with no restrictions on the Internet, labor rights, and displacement.” But it doesn’t elaborate on the content of such assurances, despite extensive evidence that the government doesn’t adequately protect these rights. In recent years the government has shuttered numerous independent media outlets, interfered with peaceful strikes, jailed labor activists, and routinely broken up peaceful protests.

Just after the commission’s visit in mid-February, parliament passed discriminatory anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) legislation and sent it to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for his signature, in clear contradiction of Olympic prohibitions on discrimination. Although Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council later ruled that the law was unconstitutionally vague, one lawmaker has suggested introducing a new version later this year.

“Kazakhstan needs to know that there will be zero tolerance for any effort to pass anti-LGBT laws, or for worker abuse and interference with media freedom or peaceful protest,” Worden said.

The International Olympic Committee should ensure that the 2022 host city contract includes specific provisions on the city’s commitment to ensure that human rights are respected and protected in the preparations for hosting and staging the games as well as sanctions for not complying, Human Rights Watch said. The IOC should also establish in-house human rights expertise and an independent human rights monitoring body to report to it regularly on the implementation of the human rights requirements in the host city contract.

“There is plenty of evidence that awarding the Olympics to a country with a bad human rights record readily leads to more abuses linked to the Olympic preparations and events that will tarnish the games,” Worden said. “The IOC has a clear chance with the 2022 Olympics to bring its best game to the human rights playing field, and require hosts to do the same.”

For background information, please see below.

Background on China and Kazakhstan’s Bids
China is an authoritarian state that systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule. Since the leadership of President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013, authorities have unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years – an alarming sign given that the current leadership will likely remain in power through 2023. It has also significantly narrowed space for the press and the Internet, further limiting opportunities for citizens to press for much-needed reforms.

Rather than embrace lawyers, writers, and whistleblowers as allies to deal effectively with rising social unrest, the government is hostile to criticism, targeting activists and their family members for harassment, arbitrary detention, legally baseless imprisonment, and torture. In recent months it has detained hundreds of activists and human rights lawyers, and shuttered a number of independent groups, including groups that work on discrimination and the rights of people with disabilities. At least two well-known activists, Cao Shunli and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, have died since early 2014 after being denied adequate medical attention in detention, and dozens of others are known to be gravely ill.

Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia and among the 20 largest oil producers in the world, has a deeply problematic human rights record. In recent years, the government has shut down many critical opposition and independent media outlets. The authorities impose tight controls over public protests, with police regularly breaking up peaceful protests as small as a few people, or even one person. The government is hostile to workers’ rights. A recent law on trade unions drafted allegedly to better regulate employee-employer relations increased restrictions on labor organizing, while additions to the criminal code further limit the right to strike.

In December 2011, police violently responded to clashes at the site of an extended labor strike by workers in the oil and gas sector, killing 12 people. Authorities then jailed several labor activists and an outspoken opposition leader, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on overbroad criminal charges following a trial that did not meet international fair trial standards. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kazakhstan face hostility and abuse, lack of legal protections, and inadequate official responses and support mechanisms such as police and social services.

How Mega Sporting Events Can Fuel Rights Abuses
Ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Human Rights Watch documented pervasive exploitation of migrant workers on Olympic sites, forced evictions of families to make way for construction of these sites, harassment and jailing of environmental and other activists, and the stifling of journalists’ efforts to document these abuses. A few months before hosting the games, Russia passed a discriminatory “anti-LGBT propaganda law” that helped fuel violence and abuse against LGBT people.

In the months leading up to the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, the government undertook a sweeping crackdown on independent journalists and human rights activists, prosecuting dozens on serious criminal charges. They remain behind bars. Only in July did the government initiate prosecutions against several who have been in custody for nearly a year. Immediately ahead of the games the government denied numerous leading international journalists access to Baku to cover the games, and faced no repercussions, despite clear guarantees to ensure media freedom during the games and repeated government “assurances” that journalists would be allowed to report freely on the European Games and other issues.