International Relations and the Olympics, Part 2: Censorship and Human Rights

Along with promises to improve environmental quality (discussed yesterday), the Chinese government also promised to improve its human rights record and afford more open access to the international media.  Ahead of the opening of the games, a number of human rights organizations have complained that China has not kept its promises in these areas. 

Since January, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained that the international community had not pressured China enough.  Some even called for a boycott of the games.  Speaking in January Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director, Sophie Richardson commented,

The preparation for the Olympics are having an overall negative impact on human rights developments in China.  In recent months, the government has increased censorship, cracked down on human rights defenders and put the brakes on growing social demands for better rights protections, all in the name of painting a picture of economic success ahead of the games… The whole world is watching China in the run-up to the Games, and heavy-handed tactics to suppress independent voices will create precisely the image Beijing does not want.  China runs a serious risk of tarnishing its reputation and the legacy of the Games.

More recently, China has come under fire from international journalists recently arrived to cover the games.  According to a story carried in Business Week, the International Olympic Committee had promised journalists unfettered access to the internet while covering the games.  But late last week, journalists found that they could not access a number of websites, including sites belonging to Amnesty International and Tibetan and Taiwanese groups critical of the of the Chinese government.  The nongovernmental agency Reporters Without Borders has criticized the censorship and has advised reporters on how to bypass firewalls and encrypt communications.

Should the Olympic Games be political?  According to the International Olympic Committee’s Charter, the six Fundamental Principles of Olympism include:

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

and

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

The connection between non-discrimination, human rights, and sports is longstanding.  South Africa was prohibited from participating in international sporting events during much of the Apartheid period.  Boycotts have common.  Including demands for improving human rights as a condition for hosting the Games seems like a logical extension of the Olympic Principles.

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