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03 Mar 2022 by lbigmr

Guest Commentary Ana Zdravković: Beijing 2022 – Just another Sportswashing example

Our guest researcher Ana Zdravković took a closer look at the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing from a human rights perspective and wrote a commentary on it. Read about the human rights situation in China, the observer status of the IOC and sportswashing here.

– by Ana Zdravković

There is no denying that the main theme running through the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics 2022 is not related to sports, but to something that is considered to be a concern of the whole international community – human rights abuses. Not only did many countries, such as US, UK, Canada, Japan and Australia declare a diplomatic boycott of the games, but also there were protests across US, India, Turkey and Japan by the citizens and non-governmental organizations. The underlying reason is alleged human rights breaches and international crimes committed by the host country against Uyghur, Kazakh and other mostly Muslim minorities. One of the greatest allegations of human rights violations against China is the likely existence of internment camps within China’s mainland where these ethnic groups are assumed to being held, tortured, forcefully sterilized, and exploited for slave labour. It must be admitted that these allegations are neither entirely new nor recent, but for some reason they have been illuminated by the glamourous lights of the Olympic Games and the gleam of the Beijing fake snow. Certainly, that is just a drop in the bucket of all international law issues related to the China’s respectful government. Apart from accusations of widespread human rights abuses and atrocities, there are claims about different freedom restrictions imposed upon people of Hong Kong, allegations of suppressing the freedom of media, arbitrary detaining activists, pervasive mass surveillance, forced disappearances and finally, there is the mystery of Ms. Peng Shuai.

It goes without saying that one could question the relevance of these issues for sports and Olympic competitions, as well as whether sports affairs should be clearly separated from law and politics. However, it must be noted that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is the governing body of the National Olympics Committees and the authority responsible for organizing modern Olympic Games, was granted observer status by the UN General Assembly back in 2009. The status was reported to be a tribute to the endeavors of the IOC to realizing the UN Millennium Development Goals, that largely revolved around human rights concerns, including combating poverty and hunger, ensuring equal access to education, promoting gender equality and children’s rights, and tackling health and environmental challenges. What is more, it was emphasized that the Olympic values clearly match with the UN philosophy. Therefore, it remains unclear how organizing the Games in the country that is possibly violating some of the most important international treaties will contribute to the fulfillment of the UN human rights goals. By way of explanation, should any of the accusations appear to be accurate, this might constitute a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, all of which were adopted under the auspices of the UN and all of which China has ratified. Additionally, if the Olympic-related activities are proven to have an adverse impact on human rights, it may be considered that the IOC, together with the companies that are sponsoring the Games are violating the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

On the other hand, there is a silver lining at the end of the tunnel. Namely, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been requesting the visit to China since 2018 with the aim of investigating the situation on the ground. Although the Office has been remotely monitoring and preparing the human right report, mostly by collecting and assessing evidence, testimonies and reports from academics, journalists, and non-governmental organizations, unfettered access to institutions and facilities is a standard procedure that enables an objective and in-depth analysis. However, unlike 128 other UN Member States, China has not issued a so-called ‘standing invitation’, a sort of general invitation indicating that the country will always accept requests for such visits. As a result, OHCHR must obtain an explicit consent of the Government to conduct on-site research, which China has so far refused to issue.

Nevertheless, now that it is in the spotlight due to Beijing Winter Games, international community has a chance for stronger pressure, which may even result in some kind of a visit arrangement with the UN High Commissioner. Otherwise, accusations that sportswashing is the only purpose of hosting Olympics and Paralympics in China, may turn out to be well-founded. After all, the term sportswashing refers to deliberate distraction from human rights issues and corruption affairs through hosting major or prestigious sporting events, with the aim of improving reputation, on a global or a local scale. In a word, it is nothing but a sophisticated form of propaganda. Hence, unless the international community seize the hour for promotion and protection of human rights, Beijing 2022 will go down in history as one additional example of sportswashing that we have all participated in. And should that not be troublesome enough, it remains to be seen what will happen until the end of the Games regarding the respect of human rights, including the freedom of media and alleged high-tech surveillance, particularly affecting guests and foreigners.

Ana Zdravković, LL.M., was born in Belgrade in 1993. After her bachelor studies at the Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade, she completed her master studies in “International Law and Human Rights” at the same faculty in 2017 with honors. In the same year, she started her PhD studies in “International Law and Human Rights” at her alma mater. She participated in various national and international scientific conferences, where she presented her research results and scientific papers, mostly dealing with different topics of international law and human rights. Currently, Ms. Zdravković is conducting research on “Absolute Human Rights” as a guest researcher in her doctoral studies at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights (LBI-GMR).

a. Gastkommentar von Ana Zdravković