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Olympics breaks own rules over China’s treatment of Uyghurs

By Sadia Rahman and Courtney Donovan Smith


TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — With the Winter Olympics set to take place in Beijing from Feb. 4-20, 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has faced pressure to change the venue or boycott the games.

They almost certainly will not at this point, but it highlights the fact that the Olympic rhetoric of fostering peace, global friendship, and anti-discrimination is empty platitudes at the expense of human rights and societal responsibilities. In order to transform its image, IOC agreed in 2014 that human rights, labor rights protection, and non-discrimination would be considered in bids for "host city contracts" starting in 2022.

Empty promises

In June at the United Nations Human Rights Council, IOC President Thomas Bach stated that the committee aspires to achieve its goal of peace through solidarity and within the Olympic Games' jurisdiction.

The IOC’s laying forth such explicit rules and then selecting Beijing as a host city despite overwhelming evidence of a worsening human rights situation is disturbingly contradictory. This raises questions about the IOC's decision-making as well as its inconsistent commitment to human rights.

Beijing has been implementing internal nation-building policies to enforce a Han Chinese-dominated monoculture. This took a brutal turn in 2014, when Xi Jinping (習近平) took a hard line against terrorism in Xinjiang. What followed was a dramatic shift in policies: enforcing arbitrary incommunicado detention, discrimination, and religious surveillance, particularly against Uyghur Muslims.

This was brought to light by experts, testimonies of various witnesses in exile, and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in 2017. The IOC cannot claim that Xinjiang's human rights issues were not sufficiently documented.

The IOC is complicit for not taking prompt decisions due to China’s global clout. However, that does not inoculate China from criticism for ignoring gross human rights violations.

When China hosted the 2008 Olympics, the assertion was that this would drive improvement in human rights. However, 13 years later the situation has deteriorated, providing compelling grounds to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Look to the past

States have boycotted or threatened to boycott the Olympics on human rights grounds in the past. After the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, 60 states declined to participate in the 1980 Summer Games hosted by Moscow, in sharp contrast with today.

Instead of denouncing and asking for a boycott because of human rights violations in Xinjiang, many nations have welcomed China's “counterterrorism” efforts. This is a perfect demonstration of Beijing’s effective strategy to silence criticism.

At the same time, top U.S. sponsors Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb, Intel, and Procter & Gamble are being chastised for their hypocrisy after describing their human rights commitments at a virtual hearing of the Congressional Executive Commission on China but refusing to publicly condemn China's worsening human rights situation or withdraw from this Olympics.

Voice for the voiceless

Nonetheless, there are human rights defenders who are raising their voices. Around 200 human rights organizations are encouraging states and athletes to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics, which they have dubbed the "Genocide Olympics." Countries such as the U.S., the U.K, Canada, and EU member states have also branded the treatment of the Uyghurs as a "genocide."

Several online petitions in favor of a boycott have gone viral, and NBA basketball player Enes Kanter is one of the most outspoken supporters of the boycott efforts. Though not directly related, the Women's Tennis Association took a principled stand over the allegations of rape at the hands of a government official by tennis star Peng Shuai, and at considerable financial cost have decided to pull their own events out of China–in clear contrast to the behavior of the IOC, which has taken the Chinese government’s side in the controversy.

Here in Taiwan, politicians such as Freddy Lim (林昶佐) have been outspoken against China’s genocide in Xinjiang and oppression in Tibet.

Some states are taking some steps, but they are largely symbolic. The U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics and are refusing to send officials to attend. Japan is also declining to send a diplomatic delegation, though it has refused to label the move a diplomatic boycott.

No country, including Taiwan, has pulled their athletes.

Tainted Winter Games

China's severe incarceration practices, mass sterilization of Uyghur women, and forced labor are all massive human rights violations.

The IOC had the opportunity to effectuate political and social change. Instead, they rewarded China with a public relations bonanza and the global spotlight.

By hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, China will use it to hide their abuses and imply the world approves of the country. Why should a state with a zero-sum attitude to human rights be given this enormous opportunity? Above all, what message is this sending?

Events like the Olympics have a big impact on a lot of human rights issues since sports are such an important part of our global society. They are a tool for promoting and respecting human rights, and neglecting to prioritize these shows that global standards are being undermined.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will not be a celebration of sports and human rights; rather, it will be a regressive step that jeopardizes human rights progress. The IOC cannot portray itself as neutral by making remarks like "politics has no place in sports."

That is, in reality, a political statement, and the fact that China is hosting this major event makes it so. It is politics that determines who should host and who will reap the profits.

China’s invalidating the existence of Taiwan by calling it “Chinese Taipei” is also political.

Beijing is far from the host city that should be setting the standards on human rights. The partnership of sports and human rights should go beyond mere promises on paper.

It is past time to pay serious consideration to human rights and make them an irreplaceable part of our strategy in how we choose to act. Turning a blind eye, remaining uncommitted, and taking no action will result in a devastating defeat in the advancement of human rights.

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