Ahead of Beijing 2022, the Olympic movement must champion human rights as part of its mandate

Surya Deva says besides their pledge of non-discrimination, all host cities should also commit to protecting the environment and the welfare of workers and affected communities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2015, 11:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2015, 11:01am

The decision of the International Olympic Committee to award the 2022 Winter Games to Beijing has been criticised by human rights organisations, which held up China's tainted human rights record as a reason the Games should not have been awarded to it.

Was the committee wrong to bring back the Olympics to Beijing? More importantly, is it the committee's business to promote human rights? The committee is bound by the Olympic Charter, which declares that the "practice of sport is a human right" and that every 'individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind … such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".

Consistent with this mandate, the Olympic committee last year decided to include a non-discrimination clause in host city contracts aimed at addressing discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. This comes in the wake of the controversy at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

On a superficial reading of the Olympic Charter, one may think that the committee needs only to uphold the right to play sports without any discrimination. However, human rights by their very nature are interdependent: the human right to practise sports cannot be realised unless people have the right to be free from unlawful detention and their rights to food, water, health, education, housing and sanitation are secured. The committee should, therefore, take a holistic view of human rights in discharging its mandate under the Olympic Charter.

Hosting any major sports event involves building large stadiums and extensive supporting infrastructure. These mega projects often result in the forced dislocation of poor people, or the exploitation of workers who toil in the construction projects. The deplorable condition faced by migrant workers engaged in the construction of soccer stadiums in Qatar is a case in point.

Should it not be the responsibility of the Olympic committee to address these concerns?

It is encouraging to note that the committee proposes to "foster gender equality" and "include sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games" as part of the 40 recommendations adopted in pursuance of Olympic Agenda 2020. The IOC is also showing signs of more transparency by making public for the first time the host city contract for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Despite these signs of progress, the committee should do more. First, it should take into account the impact of hosting Olympics on all human, labour and environmental rights, not merely some of them. Moreover, it should invest in millions of poor children who have no access to education, basic health facilities and sports.

Second, rather than going by the assurances given by a host government, the committee must conduct an independent impact assessment of hosting the Games on the affected community. It should also expressly stipulate legal consequences of breaching these promises in the host city contract.

Third, the current practice of securing a promise to respect human rights only during an "Olympic window" is problematic. If it is undesirable for Chinese authorities to harass journalists, censor the internet and arrest human rights activists during the 2022 Games, why should they be allowed to do business as usual otherwise?

Fourth, the committee should think of ways to make the current "revolving" model of the Games more sustainable, as most of the sports venues built for the Olympics remain largely unused after the events are over. It may instead consider creating shared regional sports facilities for the Games.

The Olympic committee has the power, leverage, resources and mandate to promote human rights globally. It needs to keep all human rights in focus all year round.

Surya Deva, an associate professor at City University's School of Law, specialises in business and human rights, and comparative constitutional law