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Olympic Games and Human Rights
Olympic Games and Human Rights
In my lecture I will describe the shift in the approach of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with respect to human rights, when it began to move away from its emphasis on “virtue ethics” and toward the corporate model of “social responsibility”. Furthermore, I will argue that this push for social responsibility in the sports world provides a concrete example of a larger development in today’s global society, namely the expansion of the influence of non-governmental organisations into areas of life previously assigned to governments, a phenomenon that has been called the “NGO-isation of society”. I will describe the NGO-isation of the international sports system with respect to the treatment of human rights. Finally, I will ask whether the new policies will have concrete effects on human rights violations in the context of Olympic Games.
The NGO-isation of Olympic Games
As a China scholar, my attention was drawn to the issue of human rights in sport during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At the time, I thought that the heated public criticism of those Olympic Games was because they were taking place in the People’s Republic of China, a country whose human rights record has been criticised in the developed West since its founding in 1949. However, further research revealed that there was a broader context – namely, the timely convergence of an Olympic Games in China with a global trend, the NGOisation of global society. Scholars have shown that there has been a rapid rise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) since the end of the Cold War. The number of registered NGOs worldwide has increased exponentially, and the international NGOs that take up issues that transcend national boundaries are increasingly becoming “the third force” in global politics after governments and corporations. There were about 6,000 international NGOs in 1990 and more than 26,000 in 1999.1 By 2008 the number had reached some 40,000.2 The membership and budgets of the largest ones exceeded that of many nations. One of the biggest is the environmental NGO Greenpeace. In 2008 it had offices in 40 countries and claimed nearly 3 million donors worldwide, with globalfundraising income of $310.4 million.3 Amnesty International (AI) had sections in 52 countries (but not in China) and its International Secretariat in London had membership revenues of £43.8 million (US$62 million).4
In 1995 the IOC had added “environment” as the “third pillar” of the Olympic Movement after the original two pillars, “sport,” and “culture and education.” The IOC began to collaborate with the UN on Agenda 21 on the Environment, although the IOC leadership preferred to maintain some distance from the UN out of a concern that the IOC would be coopted into serving the UN’s agenda. At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Greenpeace became the first major NGO to successfully utilise the media platform provided by the Olympic Games, and it has run campaigns in association with each summer Games since that time, issuing a report on environmental protection after each Games.5 Its tactics became a model for other NGOs.
The internet revolutionised the ability of NGOs to mobilise public opinion and link up with each other across national boundaries, enabling large numbers of NGOs to unify and descend on a target–this was called an “NGO swarm” in a 2002 report by the Rand Corporation, which argued that NGOs have been gaining strength at the cost of governments.6 The Beijing Olympic Games became the first Olympic Games to be targeted by an “NGO swarm”, and human rights issues became the second big wave, after the environment, to gain global attention owing to this swarm. The NGO-isation of the Olympic Games was launched in 2008 when the IOC entered into a new kind of relationship with NGOs and the United Nations (UN), which would eventually lead to incorporating the agendas of NGOs into the organisation of the games a decade later.
At least 50 intergovernmental or nongovernmental organisations claimed attention for different facets of human rights in the context of the Beijing Olympic
Games, bringing attention to a huge range of issues, such as oppression of ethnic minorities and dissidents, mass evictions, abolition of the death penalty, prison labour – and the list goes on. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were the most vocal. Human Rights Watch put out nearly 90 news releases, op-eds, and letters to world leaders in the year before the Games. These campaigns were successful in attracting donors: the annual revenues of AI’s International Secretariat in the year encompassing the Olympic Games jumped by 26 percent over the previous year.7 Human Rights Watch called upon the IOC to list human rights as the “Fourth Pillar” of Olympism and include human rights in the Host City Contract, a pressure it maintained up until the IOC finally amended the contract nine years later.
Here it is important to point out that the IOC itself is an NGO, as are FIFA and all of the international sport federations. They were part of the NGOisation of global society and benefited from it with the growth of their revenues and political influence. The relationship of the sport NGOs with the social issue NGOs and the United Nations is a complicated one that vacillates between collaboration and antagonism.
The IOC’s Traditional “Virtue Ethics” Approach
Up until 2008, the IOC’s response to criticism about human rights was one that had been shaped by decades of IOC tradition, as well as by influential leaders such as Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC President from 1980 to 2001, and Keba Mbaye, IOC member and a judge in Senegal who was a leader of the IOC’s anti-apartheid effort. The IOC’s approach dated to the Cold War era of boycotts led by national governments, and it was guided by one mantra: politics should not be mixed with sports in the Olympic Games. Because of the emphasis on staying out of politics, the IOC was not committed to engaging in dialogues or developing effective communications and messaging regarding its position on human rights.
As the Beijing Olympics approached, NGOs and politicians aggressively questioned the IOC about how it could justify giving the Games to an authoritarian government with a questionable human rights effort, and how the Games were supposed to change China for the better. Beyond asserting that the IOC was not a political organisation, the IOC relied on a rhetorical strategy that was, by then, over 100 years old. The argument for the power of sport to change the world for the better was based on what philosophers call virtue ethics, a type of ethical system dating back to the ancient Greeks. As sport philosopher Heather Reid has written, virtue ethics are expressed in the ancient Greek concept of virtue (arete–), a well-known concept to Olympic scholars. Virtue ethics focus on the character or excellence of the person doing the action rather than on rules or results.8 The ancient Greeks, like today’s international sports world, recognised that peoples from diverse backgrounds can be mobilised behind vague, abstract, and inspirational ideals, whereas rules and laws tend to divide people. The Olympic Charter was the governing document for the IOC’s approach. It asserted that Olympism possesses Fundamental Principles and essential values, it is a philosophy of life, and its goal is to place sport in the service of promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity, and so on. However, in 2008 this philosophy was not effective as a communications strategy because the critics could always come back with a counter-argument. Hein Verbruggen, the chair of the Coordination Commission for Beijing, described to me in an interview that the IOC was not ready for being dragged into discussions of political issues when the only defence they had was to say, “We’re not a political organisation.” He regarded the IOC’s task to be organising a good Olympic Games, and he believed that most of the issues raised by NGOs were external issues over which the IOC had no control.
However, if we look at this from more distance than Verbruggen had at the time, we can see that as long as the IOC held to principles such as dignity and harmonious development, it could be dragged into almost any ethical argument and held responsible for almost any social ill – because human dignity and harmonious development connect with all aspects of human life. Furthermore, the critics did not really care about these philosophical abstractions; they hammered the IOC over the technical question of whether China was breaking the Host City Contract. Actually, human rights were not in the contract because it was almost exclusively an economic contract about the Games’ finances. However, since the contract had not been made public, the NGOs could constantlyraise the question and also criticise the IOC for lacking transparency.
For a decade relevant developments had been taking place in the corporate world, which some major sport organisations had started to adopt, but the IOC had largely ignored them. The concept of “social responsibility” had evolved in tandem with the NGO-isation of global society. Probably it emerged as a response by the corporate world to the ever-louder criticism from the NGOs. At first, the word “sustainability” was more common than “social responsibility” since the earliest issues had been environmental. As social justice and human rights NGOs became more vocal, “social responsibility” became the keyword. The sports world followed the corporate world. Throughout the 2000s, the focus in international sports shifted from environmental sustainability to social responsibility.9 UEFA might have been one of the first major sport organisations to hire a specialist in “social responsibility”, although that label had not yet appeared. Patrick Gasser was hired by UEFA in 1999 to aid the response to the Balkan crisis (illustrating how the aftermath of the Cold War pushed forward the NGO-isation process). The IOC hired a “sustainability officer” in 2004. In other examples, FIFA launched Football for Hope in 2005. The American NBA implemented its $100 million “NBA Cares” initiative in 2006.
Verbruggen was President of Sport Accord (the General Association of International Federations) from 2004-2013. After the Beijing Games, he hired Ingrid Beutler as the first director of a new Social Responsibility and Integrity Unit. A road cyclist and a lawyer, she had previously worked for the UN Office of Sport for Development and Peace. Her first task was to establish a guideline for socially responsible event management. When Verbruggen stepped down from SportAccord in 2014, Beutler moved to the IOC and joined its re-named and enhanced Ethics and Compliance Office. This office was expected to take on the task of monitoring conformity with new human rights standards in the Host City Contract when it kicked in for the 2024 Olympics, discussed below.
In my analysis, this was a major shift away from the virtue ethics approach because it applied a corporate-style approach to human rights by narrowly defining them as a management problem. It focused on the thing that an organising committee controls, namely, the organisation of the sports event. This distinction was important for SportAccord and for the IOC because the main thing that they do is oversee the organisation of sport events. By incorporating social responsibility into event organisation, they were focusing precisely on the work that they actually do, and withdrawing from the broad claim that sport betters all of society – a claim that they could not prove.
The actions by SportAccord and the IOC followed a sequence of developments in the worlds of business and sports:
• In 2000, the NGO Global Reporting Initiative launched the first version of its Guidelines, representing the first global framework for comprehensive sustainability reporting. In 2008 UEFA used those guidelines to prepare a social responsibility report on UEFA EURO 2008.10
• In 2009, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) was founded with the aim of serving as the leading international think tank on business and human rights.11
• In 2010 the International Standards Organization (ISO) created its Guidance on Social Responsibility. This complemented its guidance on Environmentally Sustainable Management, in which the IOC had already required Olympic organising committees to gain certification.12
• In 2011 the United Nations created its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP).13
• In 2015, IHRB set up the Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights (MSE Platform), consisting of the governments of Switzerland and the United States; UN agencies such as ILO, OHCHR, and UNESCO; and sports organisations such as the IOC and Commonwealth Games; along with corporate sponsors, media, labour unions, players’ associations, international trade unions, and human rights NGOs.14 The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organising Committee (TOCOG) joined the MSE Platform. In 2018 IHRB launched the independent Centre for Sport and Human Rights.15
• In 2017 FIFA enlisted the author of the UNGP, Harvard University professor John Ruggie, to develop its Human Rights Policy, which requires host countries to follow the UNGP.16
The Addition of a Human Rights Clause in the Olympic Host City Contract
When lawyer Thomas Bach was elected IOC President in 2013, it marked an important generational change between the old “virtue ethics” model and the new corporate-legalistic model. In January 2017 the IOC added provisions about human rights to the Host City Contract effective in Paris 2024. The new contract included a clause on “Protection and Respect of Human Rights” that began by explaining,
Ensuring that Games-related activities do not harm people is an essential dimension of the success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the lasting benefits they can leave to the Host City, the Host Region and the Host Country. This is directly related to the fundamental principles of Olympism and the positive values that the Olympic and Paralympic Games represent and promote. The Games offer an opportunity to further strengthen these principles and values in very tangible and effective ways.17
The emphasis on “very tangible and effective ways” demonstrates the turn away from broad philosophical principles and toward concrete actions. The clause specifically lists migrant workers, labour conditions, displacement of local population, discrimination, child safeguarding, peaceful assembly, and media freedom – the most controversial issues of the previous decade. It also states that games-related activities should be conducted in alignment with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, an example of the fact that over the last decade, the IOC has aligned many operations more closely with the UN.
Although the Host City Contract for Tokyo 2020 pre-dated the addition of the human rights clause, TOCOG set out to implement the UNGP, following London’s example. A key requirement of the UNGP is that there must be a third-party grievance mechanism, independent from the local organising committee, so that injured parties have a channel through which to submit complaints when their rights have been violated. It is interesting to examine how very complex this process is for a global mega-event. Many of the official sponsors and suppliers are multinational corporations with tentacles around the world, which procure raw materials and manufacture products in developing countries with weak human rights protections. In the supply chain there are often human rights violations such as child labour or forced labour.18
Conclusions: Big Changes in Policies, but What about Reality?
The decade since the Beijing Olympics has seen a great deal of change in policies and philosophical position with respect to human rights in international sport. The shift is part of a bigger picture in which corporations and international non-governmental organisations – including the IOC – are being held more accountable for violations of human rights, a realm originally conceived of as controlled by national governments. Corporations and sport organisations have achieved a détente with the NGOs, hoping that the NGOs will reduce their attacks, and along with it the negative media coverage and harm to their reputations. The collaboration between the United Nations, NGOs, and sport organisations or corporations has re-defined specific human rights issues as technical or managerial problems, under the category of “social responsibility”. The result is that sport organisations and corporations have now been publicly assigned an authority over human rights that they did not previously possess, because it was assigned to national governments. While these interventions actually only have weak legal force, they borrow some strength from the way in which they are linked with a web of policies put forth by the UN and other intergovernmental organisations (such as the ISO) and public-private collaboratives (such as the MSE). Finally, they have been written into the Host City Contract, which makes it seem that they have legal force, although the Host City Contract itself is a weak legal document that almost never results in lawsuits.
Previously, the transnational nature of the official Olympic sponsor and supplier corporations meant that their operations were beyond the reach of the national laws in the developed countries where they are headquartered. The new Olympic policies now provide a way to pressure these corporations, because it doesn’t matter where the corporation is headquartered, or where its products are manufactured – if it supplies products to the organising committee, there are mechanisms to hold it accountable for human rights violations. It remains to be seen how effective these mechanisms will be. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating example of a new kind of transnational Olympic law, which does not rely on the limited territorial jurisdiction of national legal systems.
But let’s get back to the on-the-ground reality. In 2008 the IOC was responding to the charge that the IOC and the Olympic Games should improve human rights in China, and in any country in which the Games are held. The Host City Contract for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics pre-dates the new human rights clause, so we will not get to see whether it would have changed the balance of power between the IOC and Chinese government. For the future, do these new arrangements reflect any real changes in the amount of power that the IOC exerts over the human rights abuses in any given country? If so, does this mean that NGOs and the UN are gaining new leverage over governments? I think it is possible that the UN has been strengthened by the new collaborations with NGOs, including the IOC. This alliance may have been good for each of them, even though sport NGOs still tend to dislike dealing with the UN. However, in the case of China, I doubt that the government will give up much power over human rights to NGOs, or to the UN. If human rights improve heading into the 2022 Winter Games, it will be because the Chinese government wants to improve them, and not because it is forced to improve them by the IOC – or Human Rights Watch, or any other NGO, or the UN. It may be that the more important change is the increased public awareness of the human rights issues involved in Olympic Games, and the increased public pressure and media scrutiny will have more impact than the new policies – if, indeed, there is any impact.
1 The Economist, “The Non-Governmental Order,” December 9, 1999. http://www.economist.com/node/266250 (accessed July 14, 2017).
2 Union of International Associations, Yearbook of International Organizations – Guide to Global and Civil Society Networks 2009/2010.
3 Greenpeace International, 2008 Annual Report. Amsterdam, Netherlands, p. 26. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2009/11/international-annualreport-2008.pdf (accessed July 15, 2017).
4 Amnesty International Limited, Report and Financial Statements for the Year ended 31 March 2009,Company No: 1606776, p. 33.
5 Hartman, Cathy L. & Stafford, Edwin R., “Case Study: Chilling with Greenpeace, From the Inside Out,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Summer 2006), pp. 54-59.
6 David Ronfeldt, “A Long Look Ahead: NGOs, Networks, and Future Social Evolution,” Rand Corporation Report, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2002, pp. 94-95. https://www.rand.org /pubs/reprints/RP1169.html (accessed August 15, 2020).
7 See note #4.
8 Heather Reid, “East to Olympia: Recentering Olympic Philosophy between East and West,” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies XIX (2010): 59-80.
9 Keeping the Flame Alive: Sustaining the Olympic Legacy, from London to Rio and Beyond, The Buzz Business, July 25, 2016, http://www.thebuzzbusiness.com/keeping-the-flame-alive/ (accessed July 14, 2017).
10 Martin Weishäupl and Roger Keller, eds., UEFA EURO 2008 Sustainability Report, Issued by the two host nations, Austria and Switzerland, in cooperation with Euro 2008 SA. Published by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (BMLFUW); and the Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE), Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), and Federal Office of Sport (FOSPO), November 2008. https://www.uefa.com/MultimediaFiles/Download/Competitions/EURO_/77/42/52/774252_DOWNLOAD.pdf (accessed December 10, 2021).
11 Institute for Human Rights and Business. https://www.ihrb.org/ (accessed December 10, 2021).
12 “What is ISO 26000 – Guidance on Social Responsibility?” Website of the International StandardsOrganization. https://asq.org/quality-resources/iso-26000#:~:text=ISO%2026000%20is%20defined%20as,other%20stakeholders%3B%20and%20environmental%20impact (accessed December 10, 2021).
13 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2011. https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf (accessed December 10, 2021).
14 “About the MSE Platform,” Institute for Human Rights and Business, official website. https://www.ihrb.org/megasportingevents/mse-about (accessed December 10, 2021).
15 Centre for Sport & Human Rights, official website. https://www.sporthumanrights.org/ (accessed December 10, 2021).
16 Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA’s Human Rights Policy, May 2017 edition. Zurich:FIFA. https://img.fifa.com/image/upload/kr05dqyhwr1uhqy2lh6r.pdf (accessed August 15, 2020).
17 Host City Contract – Operational Requirements, June 2018, Games of the XXXIII Olympiad in 2024, p. 127. https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Host-City-Elections/XXXIII-Olympiad-2024/Host-City-Contract-2024-Operational-Requirements.pdf (accessed December 10, 2021).
18 Norihide Ishido and Takamatsu Masahiro, “Platform for Human Right Due Diligence as xHub of Sport Mega-events in Asia,” paper delivered in the workshop on “Sport Mega-Events and InterAsian Interactions,” InterAsian Connections Conference (Social Sciences Research Council with Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences), organised by Susan Brownell and Gwang Ok, Hanoi and Ninh Binh, Vietnam, December 3-7, 2018.
Articles & Publications
Articles & Publications