As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia draw to a close, many eyes are on the athletes competing for the most coveted prizes that international sport has to offer. We will inevitably hear stories about their many milestones and sacrifices that they have made to get where they are today. Moreover, we will hear stories of the triumphs and hurdles that the host government of Russia and local government of Sochi have overcome in order to stage a successful event. No doubt, these stories are very real and impressive. However, what you will most likely not hear about are the sacrifices made by the local citizens, the migrant workers, the environment, journalists, and ultimately the integrity of major international sporting events such as the Olympic Games.
In an event that was supposed to improve Russia's image within the international community and rejuvenate the city of Sochi, has instead become a catalyst for the commission of several human rights violations. In February 2013, an international "watchdog" organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), issued a report titled, "Race to the Bottom," which identified numerous abuses being committed against the migrant workers in relation to the construction of the venues for the games.
The report indicated that workers are often housed with several dozen other workers in facilities that are meant for single families and are forced to work twelve hour shifts for days without any breaks. Additionally, many workers report that employers either fail to pay them their full wages or fail to pay them at all. Employers often engage in this practice to ensure that the workers will stay and continue to work despite the poor living conditions. As a measure to prevent the workers from bringing any claims of abuse to the government, employers refuse to provide them with copies of their employment contracts or their identification papers, passports and work permits. Consequently, there are numerous documented cases in which workers have been deported without pay when an employer no longer needs their services because they lack these papers.
Abuses have not been limited to the migrant workers. Local Sochi citizens have suffered as a result of construction as well. HRW has documented several cases in which the Russian government has evicted people from their homes in order to provide room for the Olympic sites. These people are often provided no compensation and left with nowhere else to go. Additionally, construction has caused serious environmental issues in the local villages surrounding the Olympic venues. For example, construction crews continue to conduct illegal trash dumps at sites in these villages and the citizens of the mountain village of Akshtyr have gone five years without a reliable source of drinking water after being disrupted by construction. Further, NGOs or protest groups advocating for these abuses to end have been subject to harsh inspections and harassment by the Russian government. Demonstrators won't even be able to freely protest unless they are in a location pre-designated by the government far away from the site of the games. Even journalists have been subject to constant harassment by police.
Unfortunately, these abuses are not unique to just Sochi. Back in 2008, we saw the same abuses to migrant workers and local villagers in the years leading up to the summer games in Beijing. Workers suffered harsh working conditions and thousands of people were removed from their homes by the Chinese government never to be heard from again. Additionally, the government also forcefully silenced many journalists and activists trying to bring light to these abuses. Furthermore, forced evictions are already being reported in preparation for the 2016 summer games in Rio De Janiero to make way for new facilities.
Nor are these types of abuses limited specifically to the Olympic movement. Construction of athletic venues for the quadrennial FIFA World Cup tends to yield the same types of human rights abuses seen during Olympic construction. In 2010, many people were forced out of their homes so that new facilities could be built in South Africa. Some reports even indicated that people were moved into the equivalent of tin cans in remote communities. Currently, worker abuse is being documented for the construction of events as far out as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. According to a recent Amnesty International report [PDF], 1.2 million migrant workers are part of the construction team in Qatar and are suffering the exact same abuses that we are seeing in Sochi.
Despite these well-documented abuses, neither the International Olympic Committee (IOC) nor FIFA have done much to intervene aside from public statements promising to investigate further into the allegations. As bodies that are supposed to be the symbols for peace and unity in our world, it is time for these organizations to take a stronger stand against these abuses. Both organizations have a duty under international law as well as their own governing charters to prevent these abuses from happening. Much can and should be done.
HRW has recommended that the IOC establish a standing committee on human rights to monitor human rights abuses. FIFA should establish the same type of body. Additionally, both organizations must enforce the right to free press at these events, which is required by both the IOC [PDF] and FIFA [PDF] charters. Even the corporate sponsors of these events could do more to help by threatening to pull sponsorships unless the abuses are remedied. Additionally, while much cannot be done to prevent the abuses currently taking place in Sochi, the IOC must make it a point to ensure that the Russian government redresses the harms that have already occurred.
At the end of the day, as we marvel at the magnificent venues and the inspiring feats of the athletes at this year's games we must be sure to remember the hidden sacrifice of what it took to host the games. In the future, the organizing bodies of these prestigious events should protect the rights of both the athletes and non-competitors who are nonetheless affected by the games so that they can truly be a symbol of peace and unity that the rest of the world can aspire. As the Olympic Creed [PDF] reads: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Have we lost the true spirit of the Games for political show?
David Crane is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. He teaches international criminal law, international humanitarian law and national security law. He was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2002-2005. Crane served over 30 years in the US federal government, holding numerous key managerial positions and also serving as the Waldemar A. Solf Professor of International Law at the US Army Judge Advocate General's School. Christopher Eilliot assisted Professor Crane in the writing of this piece.
Suggested Citation: David Crane, IOC and FIFA Should Take Action on Human Rights Abuses, JURIST - Forum, Feb. 17, 2014, http://jurist.org/forum/2014/02/david-crane-sochi-olympics.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Alex Ferraro, the Section Head for JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org