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Games spur little progress on human rights

The Olympic Committee and China linked the Games to reforms that have gone unfulfilled.

By Staff writer / August 5, 2008


Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, says he has “no regrets” over his organization’s controversial decision seven years ago to award this summer’s Olympic Games to Beijing.

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But as he surveys the IOC’s failure to hold the Chinese authorities to their human rights pledges, he expects that “the magic of the Games and [Beijing’s] flawless organization will take over” from the scandals that have dogged the preparations for the 2008 Olympics.

“It was naive to think that there would be any major changes in Chinese politics” because of the Olympics, says Ove Karlsson, an Olympic historian. “Once they’ve awarded the Games, the IOC doesn’t have any real power” to influence the host government, he adds.

Beijing marks the first time that IOC officials have explicitly linked the Olympics to political reform. In South Korea, the 1988 Seoul Games are often cited as one of the spurs toward that country’s democratization.

But never before had the IOC – often in the face of criticism – deliberately defended the choice of an Olympic host city by pointing to political and social changes that choice would supposedly engender.

“We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record” in China, Mr. Rogge said in 2002. He also promised to press Beijing. “We at the IOC urged the Chinese government to improve,” he said. “If ... human rights are not acted upon to our satisfaction then we will act.”

Critics say that China’s human rights situation has in fact worsened and that the IOC has done little or nothing to stem the trend.

“In fact the crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers has intensified because Beijing is hosting the Olympics,” a report last week by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International found.

“We’ve been disappointed” by the IOC’s failure to prevent this, says Roseanne Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director. “We don’t believe their quiet diplomacy was effective.”

Indeed, a review of the claims Rogge has made for his policy of “silent diplomacy” suggests that the IOC has been unable to influence Chinese actions in most human rights spheres.

The IOC’s most public embarrassment made headlines last week, when foreign journalists at the two international press centers set up for the Olympics found that their Internet access was being curbed by government restrictions.

This contradicted Rogge’s assurance two weeks earlier that “there will be no censorship on the Internet,” as he had told the AFP news agency.

A public uproar led the Chinese authorities to relent somewhat over the weekend, opening websites belonging to organizations such as Human Rights Watch, but many other sites dealing with politically sensitive issues remain blocked.