The IOC and human rights

By Erika Schneidereit March 30, 201730 March 2017

The IOC and human rights


The Olympic Games – these words conjure up images of national anthems, medal counts, and the world’s best athletes competing for glory on the international stage.

But for many, reports of widespread human rights violations in the lead-up to the 2008, 2014 and 2016 Games overshadowed the excitement of watching the world’s finest go for gold.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has heeded calls from human rights organizations and other groups to establish the protection of human rights as a core value of the Games. In February, the IOC announced that it had revised its Host City Contract for the 2024 Games to strengthen human rights protections, including its first explicit reference to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The amended contract states that host cities are required to:

protect and respect human rights and ensure any violation of human rights is remedied in a manner consistent with international agreements, laws and regulations applicable in the Host Country and in a manner consistent with all internationally-recognized human rights standards and principles, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, applicable in the Host Country.

So, will this amendment really have an impact on the actions of future hosts?

Human rights organizations and trade unions have largely applauded the IOC’s move. As Sharon Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, states, “Implementing the UN Guiding Principles across all major global sporting events could help break the cycle of human rights abuses, and this example from the IOC should be applied to all such events, starting now.”

But human rights advocates have been quick to caution that implementation and monitoring is essential to ensuring the effectiveness of the new provision. Past Olympic hosts have not always been deterred by obligations on paper to protect human rights. Russia was accused of widespread violations of migrant workers’ rights during the lead-up to the 2014 Games – in spite of national and international requirements to protect workers from abuse.

To ensure compliance with human rights obligations under the revised contract, the IOC must therefore establish a standing committee on human rights with the power to investigate and report on abuses connected to the Games.

And while the revised contract’s reference to the UN Guiding Principles is a positive development, corporations involved in the construction of Olympic venues and other business activities are under no binding international legal obligations to respect human rights. Instead, the UN Guiding Principles impose only moral or voluntary obligations on corporations to respect human rights, except where corporate behaviour is already governed by domestic law.

Corporations in possession of lucrative contracts for constructing Olympic venues therefore slip through the cracks of the international human rights law regime, so that the responsibility to govern corporate behaviour falls to domestic governments rather than businesses themselves. This is obviously problematic where the host country itself is complicit in human rights violations. The IOC needs to give particular consideration to how to best regulate private interests.

Ultimately, the IOC’s decision to make human rights a core requirement for hosting the Olympic Games is long overdue. But to ensure the effective implementation of human rights obligations in future events, the IOC will have to commit in the long-term to monitor all entities involved in Olympic activities.

Erika Schneidereit is a JD candidate at the University of Ottawa - Faculty of Law and an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. The author's views are her own.

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