As the Summer Olympics in Tokyo wrap up, eyes are turning to the February 2022 winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, China – a country in the midst of its worst human rights crackdown since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. The Chinese government is persecuting millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and has doubled-down on oppression in Hong Kong, all while tightening control over the media and deploying mass surveillance. For autocracies like China, the Olympic Games are a geopolitical event that can elevate the status of the government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad. Amy Braunschweiger speaks with Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden about what’s at risk for Olympic athletes as well as sponsors in Beijing, and how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is dropping the ball when it comes to human rights.
The Tokyo Olympics are wrapping up. What were the big human rights stories there?
Human rights and the Olympics are inextricably linked. Just this week, a courageous Belarusian athlete critical of her country’s president sought asylum after her National Olympic Committee tried to force her to return home, where she feared persecution.
The Olympics should have been a gamechanger for LGBT rights in Japan. But despite an unprecedented groundswell of support for LGBT non-discrimination legislation in the lead-up to the Games, the Diet, Japan’s parliament, failed to introduce an Equality Act.
When it comes to athletes, for our 2020 report “I Was Hit So Many Times I Can’t Count,” Human Rights Watch surveyed more that 800 athletes from 50 sports in Japan, many of whom survived abuse. We also documented deaths, suicides, and abuse of Japanese athletes.
One hopeful story line to emerge from the Tokyo Games was that Olympians and athletes are standing up against abuse. Gold medal US gymnast Simone Biles, who has spoken openly about a history of sexual abuse by her Olympic team’s former doctor, as well how the abuse affected her mental health, in part attributed her decision to compete in Tokyo with a desire to maintain attention to demands for justice and safeguards. Human Rights Watch’s #AthletesAgainstAbuse campaign is similarly led by local Japanese athletes who survived abuse, and who are fighting for a Japan Center for Safe Sport.
People are now gearing up for the Beijing winter Olympics. When it comes to China, what should we be focusing on from a human rights perspective?
Right now, we’re in the midst of an incredibly repressive crackdown on human rights in China. All governments commit human rights violations, but China is the only Olympic host actively committing crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch published a report on the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity this year, including mass arbitrary detention, torture, mass surveillance, cultural and religious erasure, separation of families, forced labor, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the region.
Chinese authorities initially covered up news about Covid-19 and the deaths of Chinese health workers, and then surveilled and harassed families of those who died of the virus. Beijing’s silencing of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists, and restrictions on the internet also make it difficult to obtain accurate and timely information about health conditions and what is actually happening in the country as the Olympics loom.
In an unprecedented move, legislators in the European Union, United States, Canada, and other countries are pushing for a diplomatic boycott. This wouldn’t affect the athletes. But it means the countries wouldn’t send presidents or other government officials to the Olympics in a way that would imply support for Beijing’s awful repression.
Is a diplomatic boycott a good idea?
Human Rights Watch backs a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Governments and political leaders shouldn’t give the Chinese government the attention it is seeking or attend the games, when Beijing’s mistreatment of Xinjiang’s 13 million ethnic minority Muslims stands in stark contrast to the Olympic ideals of celebrating human achievement and dignity.
In the human rights community, we call hosting major events to distract attention from human rights abuses “sports-washing.” And the Chinese government is unquestionably already using the winter Olympics to hide their abuses and to imply the world approves.
How does competing in a country with a poor human rights record affect athletes?
Athletes are people and they have human rights. But athletes don’t have a choice about where the games are held – they go wherever the IOC decides to take the games. They’ve been training their entire lives for their Olympic moment, and some athletes are rightly asking why they have to compete in a country committing serious rights abuses. Gold medal Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin for example, says she and other athletes shouldn’t have to “choose between their morals, supporting human rights, and their jobs to compete.”
Athletes have a right to free expression, to have an opinion about the crackdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet along with abuses in their own and other countries, and to express them. As the Beijing games approach, they may be pressured into silence and that is totally wrong.
Also, surveillance of athletes going to Beijing by the Chinese government could start right now, of their social media and media interviews. When they’re competing in Beijing, will athletes be able to communicate freely with their families? Using a virtual private network can be illegal in China. Athletes face the biggest risk if they believe in human rights and want to say something about the situation in China, such as forced labor of Uyghurs, repression in Hong Kong or religious freedom in Tibet.
What can happen to athletes who speak out?
“Human rights” protections don’t appear anywhere in the Olympic Charter (outside of saying sports is a human right). The IOC says human rights will apply to future Olympics in the host city contracts, but not the current one. That is an appalling double standard, when sport is all about everyone playing by the same rules.
Beijing could target athletes whose opinions it doesn’t like. After gold medal speed skater Joey Cheek spoke out about human rights abuses in Darfur, the Chinese government cancelled his Olympic visa, and banned him from going to China in 2008. Cheek was the co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of athletes formed to pressure China into helping end the ethnic killings in Sudan ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
Separately, the IOC has a regulation called Rule 50, which punishes athletes for speaking out on the podium. This has long been a violation of free speech, and the world remembers how African-American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith suffered after they raised their hands on the podium in the Black Power salute at the Mexico City games in 1968.
How can journalists covering the games also cover the human rights repercussions of the games?
Press freedom is in the Olympic Charter and guaranteed in the host city contract. The Chinese government has pledged in multiple ways to uphold press freedom to win the right to host the Olympics. Yet a number of journalists from the BBC, ABC Australia, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications have been expelled from China for their critical coverage of the Chinese government — and are now attempting to cover the winter Olympics from Seoul, Taiwan or Tokyo. That is of course a complete non-starter: journalists can’t cover the Olympics and Paralympics from another country.
But this is an opportunity for journalists who have been expelled from China to apply right now to cover the Olympics. And if China won’t let them do their jobs, the IOC has to insist China play by the rules — which include internet and press freedoms.
What can sponsors do?
Sport is one of the last major multi-trillion-dollar industries that is not upholding international human rights standards, and that needs to change. Corporate Olympic sponsors are multinational companies like Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Intel, and Visa, and because they are literally paying for the games, they have leverage. Even if they’re afraid to ask the Chinese government to change its human rights policies because they do business in China, they could ask the IOC to step up and protect athletes and human rights in China.
Human Rights Watch has written to all of these top sponsors and asked them about their human rights due diligence around the Olympics in China. So far, not one has answered. Sponsors will need to explain to the public why they are financing Olympics and Paralympics where crimes against humanity are happening. And I hope that national legislatures around the world will be asking those tough questions.
China initially covered up the Covid-19 outbreak. What is the risk of censorship on public health?
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese officials covered up reports in local media that some of the country’s milk powder supply was poisoned with melamine. As many as 300,000 babies were poisoned and six died because the Chinese government hid this information from its citizens and the world. This happened while the Olympics were going on.
China’s poor track record when it comes to sharing accurate and timely information — around this and Covid-19 — raises serious concerns about its ability to ensure the right to health during an Olympics that is held in the midst of a pandemic.
The Olympics are watched by an estimated 3.4 billion people from around the world. What can they do?
Great progress has been made over the last decade in entrenching human rights in sport—and that is due almost entirely to pressure from public and sport fans. Increasingly, fans are saying that they don’t want to sit in a stadium that workers died to build, and they don’t want to buy clothes or products that may have been made with forced labor. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has adopted a human rights policy because of this global pressure. This means that the public has an incredible voice to demand reforms. These Olympics and Paralympics in China are a rare chance to do just that.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.