Games spur little progress on human rights

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

Andy Wong/AP
Curbs: China restricted foreign journalists’ Internet access though the IOC promised it wouldn’t.

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.

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.

Though Rogge told a Belgian newspaper earlier this summer that “we differentiate clearly between the limits of the IOC’s influence and power, and states’ sovereignty,” he did claim “several advances” in Chinese policy.

Among them are new regulations supposedly allowing foreign reporters to travel freely throughout China during the Olympic period. Since January 2007, foreign journalists have no longer been required to seek official permission to travel outside Beijing. The rules have been suspended, however, in areas of the country with ethnic Tibetan populations.

Rogge has also said on a number of occasions that it was an IOC initiative, after the discovery of a factory employing children to make official Olympic items, that led to a new law against child labor and to the arrest of managers at the factory.

Asked about this, lawyer Kong Weizhao – one of the architects of the 2006 revision to China’s law on the protection of minors to which Rogge appeared to be referring – said that “as far as I know, the IOC had nothing to do with the revision.”

“There were no arrests in the cases we found” of child labor, says Michaela Koenigshofer, a leader of the “Play Fair” coalition of non-governmental organizations that first brought the issue to the IOC’s notice. “We were shocked by Mr. Rogge’s statements.”

The Beijing Games organizing committee’s response to the reports of child labor was to end its contract with the factory concerned rather than to ensure the children’s welfare, according to Ms. Koenigshofer. “That was totally the wrong reaction from our point of view,” she says.

A third victory that Rogge has claimed in the IOC’s campaign of silent diplomacy was “to obtain proper compensation for people dispossessed by the Olympic building projects.”

This appears at odds with the insistence of Zhang Jiaming, vicedirector of Beijing’s Municipal Construction Commission, that all demolition and compensation complied with laws last revised in 2001, well before the IOC became involved.

Nor does the IOC seem to have been able to win proper compensation for the housing rights activists currently jailed or facing trial because of their efforts to organize thousands of homeowners evicted from their property to demand fair indemnification.

They include one housing activist whose case the IOC did, in fact take up. Ye Guozhu was convicted in 2004 of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” after he tried to organize a demonstration against forced evictions. The Chinese side, however, denied that Mr. Ye’s situation had anything to do with the Olympics and dismissed the IOC’s concerns.

In fact, policemen recently took Ye away from the prison from which he was due to be released last week, telling his family he would not be freed until after the Olympics, apparently to keep him away from foreign reporters.

Ye’s fate also serves as a caution to disaffected Chinese citizens who might apply for permission to demonstrate at one of the three designated sites that the government has set up to meet IOC concerns about free speech during the Games.

Ye was detained soon after applying to the police, as Chinese law required him to do, for a permit to hold a demonstration against the evictions.

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