by Francesca Pierigh*
In just a few days, a surely wonderful opening ceremony will mark the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The lead-up to the Games has been marred by the (in)famous anti-gay propaganda law, that makes it illegal to talk positively about homosexuality in the presence of minors. Such a law is clearly in contrast with Russia’s international human rights obligations, as well as with the Olympic Charter’s prohibition of discrimination. However, this is not the only violation to have taken place on Russian soil in preparation for the Olympics: migrant workers are held in slave-like conditions, and residents are evicted to build the required infrastructure. And it is not the first time.
Taking the lens away from Russia and considering the bigger picture, it shouldn’t be forgotten that each and every sports mega-event is accompanied by major human rights violations. Later on this year, Brazil will host the FIFA World Cup, and in 2016, the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. To make space for the required infrastructure, adequately responding to the requirements of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Brazil is currently forcibly evicting residents from the designated areas, thereby violating their human right to adequate housing, and the number of people affected could be as high as 250,000.1 Make no mistake, these people are being evicted precisely because of the World Cup and the Olympics.
Evictions in Rio de Janeiro. Source.
FIFA was recently nominated as one of the worst companies of the year by the Public Eye Awards, and when inquired about such a nomination by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, it replied that “it is important to mention that FIFA is neither building nor involved in the construction of infrastructure within the host country. According also [to] the information received from all host cities/states in writing to FIFA no evictions were necessary for the construction and/or upgrading of the twelve FIFA World Cup stadiums”. In other words, a complete denial. Unfortunately for FIFA, there are many reports compiled by civil society organizations that affirm exactly the contrary and testify to the many violations being carried out.2 Such violations are not only limited to the right to adequate housing or to the right to fair and decent working conditions (to name just a few): as a result of the evictions, the right to education or the right to health can also be infringed upon.3
While it is true that nor FIFA nor the IOC are directly carrying out the evictions, or requiring the State to do so, they have a very high degree of control and the power to interfere in the processes of building and renovation of infrastructure carried out by States, given to them by the signing of the hosting agreements. And with such a high degree of control, not over the States, but over the events, they should at least be aware of what is going on. Therefore, can FIFA or the IOC really say that they have nothing at all to do with the evictions, and in general, the human rights abuses taking place?
When asked about human rights violations, the IOC’s classic response is ‘[t]he IOC is not a political body, the IOC is a sports body’4. Is it really, though? Considering the importance those mega-events have and the international prestige they provide for host countries, the non-political nature of the IOC is, at least, debatable. More straightforward is, on the other hand, the question of where the IOC stands in respect to human rights. Nowhere. As in their very own words, the IOC is preoccupied merely with sports, not human rights. Consequently, no human rights safeguards are adopted in the bidding, selection and hosting procedure. And FIFA believes and behaves the same.
Still, while the internal regulations of the Committees are not explicitly mentioning human rights, they do contain some (vague) safeguards, or, in the case of the Olympic Charter, the open reference to the non-discrimination principle. And some of the practices undertaken by States in preparation for mega-events are clearly in violation of this principle, as well as of the “universal fundamental ethical principles”5 proclaimed as paramount by the international bodies.
Considering their high profile and their extreme relevance in today’s world – not only of sports – it is deplorable that nor the IOC nor FIFA have yet taken a strong stance on human rights issues. Human rights abuses, including violations of economic, social and cultural rights, are ever-present during preparations for mega-events, and, as an old saying goes, silence gives consent. If, according to the IOC itself, sport is to be considered a human right,6 why are the main international sporting bodies not acting to guarantee that human rights are respected during all stages of sporting competitions – including their preparation? The IOC and FIFA have the necessary power and influence to put an end to the abuses and to improve the human rights records of mega-events’ preparations. They also have some internal obligations that should prompt them in that direction. That they have not yet done so, is unacceptable.
Special thanks to Caio and Leja for their invaluable feedback.
* Francesca holds a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights – NUI Galway. She is currently working in the protection area for UNHCR Ecuador. Her main research interests are in the field of refugee law, business and human rights and ESC rights. You can contact her on LinkedIn.
Check out this informative video from Amnesty International on how to evict a community in five easy steps: