Olympics: Next IOC Leader Should Back Rights Reforms

New York, August 23, 2013–The next president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should ensure that future host countries comply with human rights in full accordance with the Olympic Charter, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today. On August 2, 2013, Human Rights Watch and CPJ sent a letter to the six IOC presidential candidates asking for their views on several rights issues relevant to the Olympic Movement and in particular to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi, Russia.

The letter was sent ahead of the election of the successor to current IOC president, Jacques Rogge, at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on September 10. On  August 23, Rogge will speak in New York City at the United Nations for the “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.”

“With less than six months before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Games, the Olympic Movement is facing a crisis over Russia’s failure to respect the Olympic Charter in Sochi,” said Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Just as the IOC assesses ice rinks and ski jumps, the new Olympics leader needs to press Russia to repeal a discriminatory law and address human rights violations before the Sochi Games.”

The six candidates for the IOC presidency are Thomas Bach (Germany), Sergey Bubka (Ukraine), Richard Carrión (Puerto Rico), Ser Miang Ng (Singapore), Denis Oswald (Switzerland), and Ching-Kuo Wu (Taiwan).  

In the August 2 joint letter, Human Rights Watch and CPJ asked candidates to share their positions on human rights concerns, including urgent issues related to the Sochi Games. The letter invites candidates to comment on specific steps they would take regarding:

  • The recently enacted Russian law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality that  violates portions of the Olympic charter requiring the “preservation of human dignity” and prohibiting members of the Olympic Movement, including host countries such as Russia, from practicing any form of discrimination;
  • Steps required to protect media freedom, in accordance with Rule 48 of the Olympic Charter;
  • Steps to curtail rights abuses related to Russia’s preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including evictions without fair compensation, abuses against migrant workers, and harassment of activists and media criticizing the Olympic preparations or other issues in Sochi; and
  • The need for systemic reform within the IOC,  such as the  Human Rights Watch proposal to create an IOC standing committee on human rights to monitor human rights in host countries.

“Just when Russia ought to welcome international guests for the Games, the Kremlin is legislating hostility to foreigners and cracking down on independent voices through restrictive new laws and a rhetoric of discrimination,” said Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator at CPJ. “We call on the IOC to engage with Russian authorities on these pressing issues and urge them to decriminalize defamation, stop censoring the Internet, abandon their policy of harassment of independent journalists and human rights defenders, and address the lasting impunity in anti-press violence.”

Before, during, and after the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Human Rights Watch, CPJ, and other rights organizations met with the IOC to report a host of rights violations, including abuses of migrant workers building Olympic venues and infrastructure and the use of the Olympics as an excuse to dramatically expand the country’s security apparatus. The harsh clampdown on civil society and media and internet censorship in the run-up to and during the Beijing Olympics – with punishment for anyone trying to protest – interfered with reporting these abuses.

Human Rights Watch has since 2008 provided the IOC with detailed information on human rights abuses ahead of the Sochi Olympics through letters and meetings. These concerns include harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers building major Olympic venues (including the media center), and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.

“The IOC failed to hold China to its press freedom commitments during the Beijing Olympics and now it faces a similar challenge in Russia, a country that routinely disregards its human rights obligations,” said Joel Simon, executive director at CPJ. “The next IOC president must show leadership and adherence to the Olympic principles by ensuring that Russia repeals its repressive laws and upholds its human rights obligations, including on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”

On August 15, the IOC replied to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists on behalf of the six candidates. Regarding the anti-LGBT law in Russia, the IOC stated: “Whilst we clearly expect any Olympic Games, regardless of their location and including the next edition in Sochi, to take place without any form of discrimination, it is important to stress that the IOC’s remit is limited to the scope of the Games. For instance, the IOC cannot influence national legislation and has to respect the law of any host country.”  The letter also indicated the IOC’s general agreement that “ensuring human rights and media freedom in the context of the organization and staging of the Olympic Games is crucial.”

The letter did not include any specific responses from individual candidates. Some of the candidates have expressed their opinions about the anti-LGBT law in Russia when asked to comment by the media.

“As guardians of the Olympic flame, the IOC’s role is to take action in moments that threaten the Olympic movement,” Worden said.  “The time to act is now.”

To view Human Rights Watch and CPJ’s letter to the six IOC presidential candidates, please see below.

For more information on rights abuses linked to the Sochi Olympics, please click here.

To view Human Rights Watch’s report “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” click here.

To view Human Rights Watch’s submission to the 2009 Copenhagen Olympic Congress, please click here.

To view documents published by the Committee to Protect Journalists on ongoing assaults on media freedom in Russia, please click here or here.

For more information, please contact:

For Human Rights Watch:
In New York, Minky Worden (English, German, Cantonese): +1-212-216-1250; or +1-917-497-0540 (mobile); or [email protected]
In New York, Jane Buchanan (English, Russian): +1-212-216-1857; or +1-646-644-4847 (mobile); or [email protected]
In New York, Rachel Denber (English, Russian, French): +1-212-216-1266; or +1-917-916-1266 (mobile); or [email protected]

For the Committee to Protect Journalists:
In New York, Joel Simon (English, Spanish): +1-212-465-1004 (x116); or [email protected]
In New York, Nina Ognianova (English, Russian, Bulgarian): +1-212-465-1004 (x106); or [email protected]

UPDATE: This press release has been modified to reflect that Sergey Bubka is from the Ukraine–not from Russia, as previously stated.