The Olympics or the Inability to Protect Rights

BY Daniel Marin Lopez*

 

August 4th – Paraty, vacations that calmly unfolded. For me, this paradise, birthplace of one of the most active literature festivals of Brazil, was an opportunity to open my eyes to a rather suggestive book: Autoimperialismo: três ensaios sobre o Brasil (Crítica, 2016) by the biographer of the famous carioca Clarice Lispector, the American Benjamin Moser.

In this book, he discusses Brazil’s sinister face, one that can extend itself to many experiences around the world, the constant desire to be the “country of the future”. That complex political attitude that finds itself between knowing that internally things are not going too well and externally pretending that things are working (working great!). This the frustrating position of always having more future than present.

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by: Marcelo Druck.

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by: Marcelo Druck.

August 5th – There was Rio, for me and another seven billion people. One of the most idyllic, stunning cities, Rio is Rio. The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in the Olympic boulevard that bordered the Guanabara Bay was spectacular. As one of the delegations passed by, I could hear a scream followed by another one farther away, everyone there, 213 countries. The greatness of the refugee team. The truth is that it is fascinating to find the most diverse Rio ever, all countries, one by one.

August 22nd – A week like any other week after the games, there is a collective excitement about what just happened, anthems, medals, smiles, and frustrations. Also, and in a less obvious manner, there are the “classic” media articles about how poorly the city and the host country performed in terms of human rights. At the end of the day, these events are often invasive projects, with evictions, slave-like labor, and the so-called “social cleansing”, selected murders by police forces.

These articles are “classic” since they have become commonplace after the end of large sporting events in the last few years. Since Beijing 2008, we have seen periodically at least a report from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch documenting the phenomenon of systemic human rights violations. Restrictions on political rights, unjustified incarceration of activists, and massive evictions in ancient Beijing were followed by violations to the rights of indigenous peoples and the environmental disaster of 2010 Vancouver. After land destruction with minimum compensation in 2012 London, we attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a gala displaying Russian power with enslaved labor. And Rio is also there. Some inhumane statistics reveal more than 2600 murders in favelas in the city since 2009. And a few months before the competition began, there was one murder per day.

Amnesty International Olympic Torch run in San Francisco to protest Russia LGBT law. Photo by: Steve Rhodes

Amnesty International Olympic Torch run in San Francisco to protest Russia LGBT law. Photo by: Steve Rhodes

What putting together the Olympics shows is that to have the most diverse party, humanity has to suffer the costs. It is also clear that in geopolitical global strategies, human rights are a minor evil.

We are in a time where the influence over the international realm is expressed, among other things, through the development of a sporting mega-event.  When showing through majestic allusions the power of a State (like in opening ceremonies) has become a requirement that every self-defined powerful nation must fulfill, there is no room for discussions on how to protect human rights in host countries.

In this way, we witness the little influence that the human rights movement has to demand the fulfillment of international standards. For example, the case of Beijing where despite multiple reports made by organizations like  Olympic Watch – that since, 2001 when it was known that the Chinese capital would be the Olympic host in 2008, denounced the flare-up of censorship against political activists through practices like incarceration  – will now host again the Winter Olympics in 2022. Or the case of Brazil, which after numerous problems with police abuse,  is preparing to host the 2019 America Cup.

Olympic torch rally, London. Photo by: Kaustav Bhattacharya

Olympic torch rally, London. Photo by: Kaustav Bhattacharya

We also witness the inability – or lack of interest – by international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the FIFA – in launching a serious audit around the fulfillment of human right standards. It seems that the IOC has privileged the execution of the games no matter what. In a Foreign Policy article on the legacy of 2014 Sochi, Jane Buchanan showed how only when there were signs of human rights violations during the construction of the Olympics venue, the IOC reacted with an indifferent nod, saying it would strengthen its human rights policies in 2022, with two other Olympic events in between.

This also showed the disconnect between several international organizations to push for better human rights protection in the host countries. The checks and balances system in the international sphere fails when we question countries like Russia or China. Even though both the United Nations and the International Labor Organization have reached agreements about human rights standards during the Olympics, the reality demonstrates their insufficient impact.

After two weeks in Brazil, an anecdote that Moser documents in his book still resonates with me because of its sharpness in explaining the term autoimperialism. When Rio was the capital of Brazil during the early 20thcentury, Paris was the global example of “urban perfection” with its large avenues. Then, the Brazilian government started the construction of the central avenue. 1600 houses were demolished; those who opposed the project, were massacred. Those displaced by this new infrastructure became homeless, beginning to move to the hill near the new avenue, the morro da favela. The favela that today extends all over Brazil and that has become a battle ground.

Brazil’s favelas during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic games. Photo by: NBC

Brazil’s favelas during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic games. Photo by: NBC

In the paradox of showing itself as a modern country while it perpetuates human rights violations, Brazil – and the rest of the world – carry out urban interventions with high human costs. They ignore that while opening the doors to the future, they forget the present. What is worst, no one – at least no organization – seems to have the power to organize the internal mess. The international system is silent and it seems – given the way it assigns the venue of these mega-events – will continue to be silent. During the Games, the weak institutional commitment to guarantee the respect for human rights darkens the Olympic spirit of fraternity.

On my part, echoing the desire of Michael Powell in the New York Times, “One day, perhaps even next time, we can deliver a sustainable Olympics worthy of them.”

 

* Daniel Marin Lopez  is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).