Formula One promises this weekend’s Grand Prix of Europe race in Baku will be “a race like no other.” While the racecourse may make history for its speed and length, the event is significant for much more sinister reasons.
For the second summer in a row, Azerbaijan is hosting a glitzy global sporting event against the backdrop of a massive crackdown against its own citizens. Meanwhile, the sporting federations awarding the events and partnering with the government have refused to wave the red flag on Baku’s trampling of fundamental human rights. It feels like déjà vu to last summer’s European Games.
Since 2014 Azerbaijani government has arrested and prosecuted dozens of journalists, lawyers, and political activists on trumped up charges to prevent them from doing their legitimate work of reporting and distributing information of public interest or representing the legal and political interests of others. Although a number of individuals targeted in this campaign, including the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, have been released in recent months, many others remain in prison, and arrests continue. Some of those released face restrictions on their work, including travel bans, and in this chilling environment also reasonably fear repercussions for future activism.
Formula One publicly states that it “is committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights in its operations globally.” Human Rights Watch and the Sport for Rights coalition have met with Formula One and called on Formula One to meaningfully act on that pledge.
But on the eve of the race, Formula One Chief Bernie Ecclestone stunningly claimed that the group has a “100 percent” clear conscience on human rights in Azerbaijan.
To live up to its stated principles and avoid being tarnished by association with ugly repression, the Formula One leadership needs to find its voice on human rights before Sunday’s checkered flag leaves Azerbaijan’s crackdown victims in the dust.