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UN Human Rights Council: Using Sport and the Olympic Ideal to Promote Human Rights for All, Including Persons with Disabilities

Statement delivered under Item 8

For more than a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses linked to mega-sporting events, or MSEs, such as the Olympics, football’s World Cup, Formula One racing or international volleyball tournaments.

In a series of reports, from China to Russia, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, we have documented how mega-sporting events were tarnished by mega-violations when games were awarded to serious human rights abusers. We have documented forced evictions, abuses of migrant workers building state-of-the-art sports venues under hazardous conditions and sometimes without being paid their full wages, the silencing of journalists seeking to write on sensitive topics, discrimination against women and/or the LGBT community, environmental degradation that harmed vulnerable communities, and the harassment or even jailing of civil society activists attempting to highlight such abuses. 

No government has a perfect human rights record, but Human Rights Watch has proven through our reporting that risk of serious abuses is much more pronounced when Games are awarded to hosts who have bad rights records or no functioning rule of law. We have also documented how the IOC and other organizers have failed to take adequate steps to address these risks by insisting on conditions that could have prevented abuse.

For example, these past events were marred by multiple rights abuses:

The 2008 Beijing Games were tainted by forced evictions, illegal home demolitions, abuses of migrant workers who built infrastructure related to the Games, severe restrictions of media freedom despite pledges made to the International Olympic Committee, and even the jailing of protesters who had sought to peacefully voice their concerns at officially designated protest zones.

The 2014 Sochi Games were characterized by many of the same abuses as those seen in Beijing in 2008, including forced evictions and rampant migrant labor abuses, and were also held in a climate of severe anti-LGBT discrimination.

The 2015 Baku European Games were held against a backdrop of grave political repression in Azerbaijan.

Earlier this year, the Kish Island Open volleyball tournament, held in Iran, was marred by the blatant discrimination against women who were prevented from attending matches, despite Iranian authorities’ promises to the sport’s global governing body FIVB.

Human Rights Watch has also voiced its concerns about upcoming events, such as the 2022 Qatar World Cup, where migrant workers toil in dangerous and sometimes even deadly conditions under an abusive sponsorship system known as “kafala.” The kafala system denies workers basic labor protections and leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

At a special session in Monaco in December 2014, under President Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee adopted a set of reforms known as “Olympic Agenda 2020.” Several reforms, such as the pledge to make future host city contracts public and the revision of the Olympic Charter to make the ban on gender discrimination more explicit, were consistent with recommendations made by Human Rights Watch earlier, including at the IOC’s 2009 Copenhagen Congress.

But more needs to be done. Reforms are only as good as their implementation, and must be adopted uniformly across the spectrum of mega-sporting events, not only by the IOC, but also by the FIVB which oversees volleyball competitions, FIFA whose new President Gianni Infantino has promised to bring more transparency to international football events, and F1 which recently held an automobile racing Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, whose government has a deplorable human rights record.

We will continue to monitor rights abuses as they happen, but just as importantly, we seek to work closely with these governing bodies to make sure more abuses are prevented as future mega-sporting events are being organized.

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