The Beijing Winter Olympics is one week away but instead of a buildup of celebratory anticipation, those who are not on the protest line seem not so much excited as grimly determined to get through the Games unscathed. Athletes, governments, and sponsors and even the International Olympics Committee (IOC) are proceeding cautiously, keeping their heads down and preparing for the worst.
“Not the joyous party that we had wished it to be…”
It was a different picture ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Back then, the IOC had high hopes based on promises made by China that the games would somehow inspire a strengthening of human rights in the country. Then IOC President, Jacques Rogge, told reporters in 2006, “The staging of the Beijing Games will do a lot for human rights and social relations. We are sure that this is going to be the case. Having 20 to 25,000 press people covering, will open up the country to the whole world. That will have a positive effect.”
He was not alone. The Dalai Lama had said that China “deserved” to host the Games and renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei designed the official stadium, the Bird Nest, to symbolize the opening up of the country.
Instead, in the months before those Games began, the silencing, evictions, forced labor and crackdown of protestors, migrant workers, citizens, among other abuses, prompted Rogge to remind China of its promise and called on the government to “respect this moral engagement.”
The Chinese foreign ministry publicly retorted that the IOC must “support the Beijing Olympics and adherence to the Olympic charter of not bringing in any irrelevant political factors.”
When the elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse
Flashforward to 2022 and current IOC President Thomas Bach seems to have taken this missive to heart. This time around, no promises are being made about human rights. When asked about his organization’s plans to mitigate the risk of human rights violations at this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing beginning February 4, Bach and the IOC instead choose to sidestep conversations about human rights altogether in the name of “neutrality.”
Desmond Tutu once famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
But Thomas Bach says, “By not commenting on political issues, you’re not taking a side. Neither the one, nor the other. This is the mission of the IOC. Otherwise, we could not manage to accomplish the mission of the Games, to bring and unite the world.”
Never mind that the world, one would think, includes the Uyghurs, human rights advocates and international laws and standards.
All the things “neutrality” doesn’t see
Since awarding Beijing with the 2022 Winter Games, horrifying accounts of forced labor, torture, family separation, and other abuses in the Uyghur Region detention camps have continued to surface.
Last year, an independent think tank and tribunal found that the actions of the Chinese state against the Uyghur population amounted to genocide. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, as well as 40 countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council have publicly shared concerns about crimes against humanity in the Uyghur Region.
The U.S. government signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law at the end of 2021 to “ensure that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States market, and for other purposes.”
Citing forced labor and other human rights violations in the Uyghur Region, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games last year. Activists around the world have called for a full boycott.
Forced labor violates the Olympic Charter
The IOC recently testified to U.S. lawmakers this month that, based on the reports of its third-party auditors, there is no forced labor in the production of its uniforms. However, in March 2021, its official uniform supplier, Anta Sports, declared, “We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so.” Around the same time, the company left the Better Cotton Initiative for announcing it was exiting the Region.
The IOC is being asked to make the assurances and certificates of clearance they’ve received public. The lawmakers warn, “As a starting point to fulfilling its commitment to uphold and respect human rights, and in line with the preservation of human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter, the IOC must uphold and respect the human rights of those who made the uniforms on their backs.”
Indeed, the second principle of the Olympic Charter reads: The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
The Palihapitiya attitude
This month, American billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya declared “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.” Palihapitiya further said that “Not until we can take care of ourselves, will I prioritize them over us” and that the entire concept of global human rights is a “luxury belief.”
While more nakedly self-interested than the IOC’s statements, the sentiment is very much the same. The IOC made sounds about “hope for a better, a more peaceful future” and spoke sweetly of athletes’ dreams to deflect attention away from its glaring negligence of human rights due diligence policies.
However, when Freedom United, along with our partners at the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, spent eight months in 2021 patiently attempting to arrange a discussion about potential forced labor and human rights risks connected to the Games, the IOC rejected our proposal for a mutually respectful two-way dialogue.
Further, in the face of reports of remarks by a high-ranking Beijing Organizing Committee member threatening “punishment” of athletes whose speech is “against the Chinese laws and regulations”, the IOC has no plans to share on how it will protect the persons without whom there would be no Games. Athletes are worried about their safety but the IOC, like Palihapitiya, does not seem to care.
Unity requires respecting human rights
Fortunately, the Freedom United community has different values. We care very much about the freedom and enjoyment of fundamental rights of all people. Although our mandate is fighting modern slavery, thanks to our human rights approach we can see how an international mega sporting event can facilitate or worsen risks of forced labor – and take action.
That’s why we launched a new petition this month to tell the IOC that the Olympics must be free of forced labor. Will it change their indifference? Most likely not but it will tell the world, the Uyghurs, the sponsors, and the athletes that we care.
Caring charges movements, changes laws and creates an environment for liberation.
Maybe the 2022 Winter Olympics will not be affected but we are certain that the IOC will think twice about its future choices.