Mascots of Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Breaking the spirit of Olympism? The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and Mega Event Human Rights Violations

Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley

The 2014 Winter Olympics commenced in Sochi, Russia this week. However the event is not without controversy. Many people will have seen the BBC Panorama episode ‘Putin’s Games’ last week investigating alleged human rights violations connected to the hosting of the XXII Winter Olympiad. What will have been shocking to some is the hugely negative impact a mega event such as the Olympics can have on the local environment and people.  The International Olympic Committee’s binding Olympic Charter 2013 includes The Fundamental Principles of Olympism, which provide that:

‘Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.  The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’

These are admirable principles to hold. However the reality of the preparations for these games has resulted in actions by the Russian authorities and businesses that have been far from ethical, and which are threatening to human dignity.

Hosting a mega event such as the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup is supposed to bring positive benefits to the national, state, and local communities and in some instances this does occur. Unfortunately, in many cases the ‘alleged economic benefits of staging the games are not spread evenly throughout the local population.’ The potentially positive effects of development, construction of improved transportation links and other infrastructure, employment opportunities, and environmental improvements to the locality are often only enjoyed by an elite sector of the community, benefiting those in business, local politicians, and others in positions of power whilst simultaneously negatively impacting upon the already marginalised sectors of society – the poor and vulnerable.

A Human Rights Watch Report from January 2014 notes multiple human rights abuses during the preparations for hosting the Games. These include civil and political rights violations and violations based upon discrimination such as, exploitation, deportations and illegal detentions of migrant workers employed in the construction of the Olympic facilities and infrastructure (p.5), harassment and discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people (p.14), and intimidation of journalists, civil society activists and locals by the authorities (p.19) There is also evidence of economic and social rights violations (p.8).

The local population of Sochi have been subject to forced housing evictions, illegal land appropriations and the cutting off of their water supply, all of which may constitute breaches of the right to an adequate standard of living (which includes the rights to water, housing and food). In particular, in the area around Sochi construction for the Olympic venues and related infrastructure has caused landslides resulting in damage to homes. The opening of a new quarry to supply stone needed for the various construction projects, the dumping of construction waste and the construction of electrical supply have all resulted in landslides. Now villagers are forced to live in houses that have partly subsided and may be a danger to life, notwithstanding the existing detrimental effects of living in such a dwelling. No compensation has been offered to those affected (p.10).

Further, people living in the village of Akhshtyr have lost their water supply. Prior to the construction of the Olympic infrastructure most homes had their own wells supplying sufficient, safe and easily accessible water. Now, these wells have been destroyed by the construction of a new road to facilitate construction vehicle access. The authorities state that they have installed a communal water pump in the village (over 4 years ago), however this is not functioning (p.11). No other wells have been constructed. Although the authorities are now providing tanker water delivered once a week, this does not meet the minimum core obligations with regard to the right to water. Further, this is a retrogressive step in terms of realising the human right to water, as the water is now less accessible, limited in availability and more liable to contamination.

Forced evictions have also taken place. Over 2,000 families have been resettled by the Russian government to make way for Olympic venues and a new road and rail infrastructure. In some of these cases families have been forcibly evicted from their homes without adequate compensation and with a lack of consultation and transparency of process. Moreover the alternative housing provided has been of poor quality (p.8).

In sum, people have suffered violations of the human right to housing, right to water and the right to health because of the Olympic development. According to their own action programme for sustainable development, the Olympic Movements Agenda 21 (1999, 3.1.6),

‘Sports facilities will be built or converted so as to ensure their harmonious integration into the local context, whether natural or man-made, and in accordance with considerate planning of land use.’

Although declaratory in nature, these provisions clearly advocate an approach that is not evident on the ground in Sochi.

Russia is a party to international human rights treaties including both the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). The rights to housing and right to water and the right to health are protected under International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Article 11 and 12. Furthermore The Constitution of the Russian Federation (1993) provides an extensive list of rights, including the right to housing, the right to health and the right to a favourable environment. As a consequence of their ratification of these treaties, Russia has an obligation to respect existing human rights enjoyment and to protect the people in Sochi from interference by third parties in the enjoyment of their rights. The Russian state also has the obligation to fulfil human rights when necessary.  In these cases Russia is clearly in breach of their obligations under international human rights law regarding several economic and social rights. However, there is also a question as to the obligations of the International Olympic Committee (and other Olympic bodies) as well as third parties such as Sponsors in addressing these violations.

One might be mistaken in thinking that these violations are a consequence of the IOC awarding the games to Russia, and in part of course the level of human rights enjoyment within a particular State is a contributing factor. However, the human rights violations caused by such mega events are not confined to the Sochi games – they are not a new phenomenon. The UN Special Raporteur on the right to adequate housing and Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has documented extensive human rights violations related to the hosting of the Olympics in Barcelona and Beijing for example. The hosting of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa was equally controversial. With the removal of over 20,000 residents from an informal settlement and in New Delhi, 35,000 families were evicted from public land in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games (para.18). There is a clear evidence then of a pattern of human rights abuses following from such mega events. Thus some responsibility must be taken by the IOC in terms of acting to minimise the negative impacts on marginalised groups due to hosting of such events and to prevent such human rights violations in the future. Action is required on the part of the International Olympic Committee to tackle this phenomenon which runs counter to the ideals of the Olympic movement.

What can be done?  The IOC does communicate with human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and does pass on concerns to the relevant Organising Committees. However, the IOC has consistently failed to hold states accountable for these human rights abuses. In the current case in Sochi, HRW note the ‘IOC has not sought to verify whether the abuses have been adequately resolved’ (p.26). Nor do they question the Russian authority’s explanations of events even when they have been proven to be misleading. Therefore, and with a view to past human rights abuses, NGOs such as COHRE and HRW as well as the UN Special Raporteur on the right to adequate housing have advocated measures such as an IOC standing committee on human rights which would help set out benchmarks and monitor threats and violations on the ground; a bid process that ensures only states who commit to ensuring human rights standards including carrying out impact assessments are considered for hosting the games, and sponsors to be chosen on the basis of their record in respecting human rights and corporate social responsibility.

In addition, those involved in the protection and promotion of human rights globally need to engage further with this issue. In September 2013 the Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution on Promoting Human Rights through sport and the Olympic ideal which established a mandate for the Advisory Committee to prepare a study on the possibilities of using sport and the Olympic ideal to promote human rights for all, bearing in mind the Olympic Charter. Presumably the thinking behind this move was to emphasise and encourage the positive impacts of such events, and perhaps to examine in some depth the negative effects experienced to date with a view to making recommendations for improvement in the future.

The International Olympic Committee, individual members, the cities wishing to organise the Games, the Organising Committees of the Olympic Games and the National Olympic Committees all ‘undertake to respect and ensure respect’ of the Code of Ethics (2013) which includes, safeguarding the dignity of an individual as a fundamental principle of olympism, adopting measures to ensure integrity, good governance and use of resources, and provisions that outline their implementation. Specifically the Code provides that the ‘The Olympic parties shall see to it that the principles and rules of the Olympic Charter and the present Code are applied.’ With these binding provisions in mind it is evident that the IOC, and all parties involved in the hosting of the games and bidding, need to take action to ensure that human right standards are adhered to, and that if they are not that appropriate measures are taken to remedy the abuses. With preparations already underway for the forthcoming Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2016 (and the FIFA World Cup) action is required now before the repeating pattern of human rights violations begins again.

Amanda Cahill-Ripley (@AmandaCahillRip) is a Lecturer in Law and author of The Human Right to Water and its Application in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Routledge, 2013 (paperback).  Her main research interests are international human rights, in particular economic and social rights; human rights, conflict and transitional justice; rights and development.

You can find out more about Amanda’s research at


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