The Olympics, China and Human Rights

By Siekmann, Robert | The International Sports Law Journal, January-April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Olympics, China and Human Rights


Siekmann, Robert, The International Sports Law Journal


Introduction

Just as in 1978, when two well-known Dutch cabaret performers were the first to call for a boycott by the Dutch national football team of the FIFA World Cup held in Argentina, the present discussion about a possible boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing was also initiated by a cabaret artist interested in football. In both cases, human rights violations by the host nation are taken as an argument in favour of a sports boycott. In the case of China, the issues specifically include use of the death penalty, the torture of prisoners, administrative detention, the violation of the freedom of speech (including freedom of the press) and religious freedom, the violation of minority rights and the intimidation and arrest of human rights activists. In addition, critics denounce the expropriation of land to free up space for the construction of facilities for the Games without offering satisfactory compensation. They also condemn the policy of the People's Republic with respect to Africa, pointing towards the Chinese support for the regime in Sudan (the Darfur question). The recent developments in Tibet, however (the protest demonstration and their violent suppression), formed the incidents that truly brought the debate about a possible boycott of the Olympic Games to the fore.

What does a comparison of "China" and the case history and possible precedents from the past teach us with regard to international sports boycotts? (1) Who can take action in this context; and in which way; taking which action? What is possible, what is allowed? What is reasonable? To answer these questions, I will pass the various possible international and national actors/stakeholders in revue, starting with the United Nations, the European Union and the Dutch government on the one hand, the IOC, the Dutch National Olympic Committee (NOC*NSF) and the individual Dutch Olympic competitor (athlete) on the other. Of course, China's responses will also be included in this summary.

United Nations

Statements made by the Security Council offer no foundation for a (binding) collective sports boycott. There is no case of a military intervention in Tibet. Tibet is a part of China, not an independent state; it is not a member of the UN and is not recognized as such by the international community. In other words, non-intervention in a state's internal affairs should be the primary aim, unless the Security Council were to qualify China's actions in Tibet at the very least as a threat to international peace and security, in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This, however, is purely theoretical--an unreal conjecture. There is nothing that would suggest such a decision being reached. Indeed, "Tibet" is not on the Security Council's agenda. Furthermore, as a permanent member of this body, China would veto any resolution in this direction.

The violation of human rights in China is even less likely to inspire a UN boycott. According to the annual report dealing with human rights violations throughout the world (2007 edition), the United States no longer considers China one of the worst offenders in the area of human rights. While the situation is bad, some progress is being made, and there have been various major legal reforms. At present, the People's Republic falls under the category of authoritarian regimes that are experiencing economic reforms and rapid social reforms, but are not yet implementing democratic political reforms. However, according to human rights organisations like Amnesty International, things have actually worsened in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his concern about the violence in Tibet, and called on China to practice restraint in this area. As has the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has urged China to speak with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and political leader-in-exile, in order to arrive at a peaceful solution for the Tibet question. …

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