Rio triggers call for stricter human rights protections for future Olympics

Human rights organizations have come together to try to prevent future Olympic Games from having a harmful affect on host cities' poorest residents. 

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
An Amnesty International activist carries funeral flowers, commemorating victims of police violence, into Rio 2016 Olympic Committee headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, on July 27. Activists are demanding that the Olympic Committee and Rio's government prevent human rights violations during the games.

Next time, think about the risks to vulnerable populations before choosing an Olympic city. That's the take-home message from a coalition of human rights advocates and non government organizations that point to a host of foreseeable problems confronting Rio de Janeiro.

The attempt to clean up Rio before the 2016 Summer Games has resulted in human rights violations, say the members of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA), including the forced relocation of tens of thousands of people, poor labor conditions, and an increase in the often war-like tensions between the police and Rio’s poorest neighborhoods.

The goal must be improving "the human rights situation all over the world," explains Sylvia Schenk of Transparency International, one of the NGOs making up the SRA. Awarding the Olympic Games to a city should lead to better conditions in that city, not worse, she tells The Christian Science Monitor.

"Above all," she says, officials have an obligation "to prevent any human rights abuses directly linked to the Olympic Games."

Ms. Schenk and her colleagues are calling for two major changes: stricter requirements for bidding criteria and the higher standards in host city contracts, particularly on the issue of human rights.

She says that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the most leverage during the bidding process, making that a vital opportunity to stress the importance of human rights.

"The host city contract of 2024 is going to be revised after the Rio Olympics, and what we are asking the IOC is to put human rights measures in the host city contract,” says Andrea Florence, a lawyer for SRA member Terre des Hommes, in an interview with the Monitor.

The Olympic Committee revises the host city contract following each Olympics in light of problems that arose throughout the process.

Last week, the IOC agreed to meet with SRA members to discuss their recommendations. On Wednesday, the IOC said it will introduce a mechanism for reporters covering the Olympics to report violations of press freedom.

Many countries see hosting major international events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games as an opportunity to improve infrastructure, with a community mobilized for change and a large budget to invest in public works.

In Rio, this has manifested itself in new transit and bus lines and a redeveloped port area, but the pre-Olympic improvements also involved security measures that activists say have heightened tensions between police and the favelas, slum neighborhoods outside Rio.

“In Brazil, they promised to make better the security policies in Rio, and actually it wasn’t done,” Ms. Florence tells the Monitor. “How is it done when there is a transport line that required people to move? Do they talk to them? Is there any type of transparency in the communication? No. The way these policies are implemented needs to be revised.”

According to Átila Pereira Roque, the director general of Amnesty International Brazil, the changes that officials call increased security are reinforcing stereotypes that paint poor men, particularly those of African descent, as dangerous criminals – increasing their risk of being fatally shot by police.

Police killings in Rio jumped more than 100 percent in the past year, according to Amnesty International. Since 2009, when the city won its Olympic host bid, police have killed more than 2,600 people in Rio, the group says.

This trend has been seen before in Rio, said Renata Neder, a human rights adviser at Amnesty. In 2007, when Rio hosted the Pan-American Games, deaths rose by 30 percent, she told The Guardian. In 2014, when the World Cup came to Brazil, they rose by 40 percent.

“The sporting authorities did not learn from the Pan American Games or the World Cup and did not put in place any measures to stop this happening again in the run-up to the Olympics,” said Ms. Neder.

Several favelas have been demolished to make room for new stadiums and hotels to house the influx of athletes and spectators. A Rio city spokeswoman defended the practice to The Washington Post, saying that families were relocated into better public housing than they had lived in in the favelas. Residents, however, spoke of communities destroyed as city officials coerced people into leaving their homes.

“The Olympic values and ideals ... need to be implemented in the structure of the IOC contracts so that they do no harm,” Florence says. “It is time they move it forward and really implement those principles."

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