Almaty, Kazakhstan is one of two remaining candidate cities to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Human rights activists are using its prominence as a finalist to criticize what they consider Kazakhstan’s abysmal human rights record and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) apparent apathy to such concerns. Activists are pushing for increased scrutiny regarding the Olympic bids of authoritarian nations, and are publicly pressuring the IOC to add effective language to the newly mandated human rights contracts, which countries sign to host the games. In particular, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is pressuring the IOC to enforce the contracts and follow through on strict sanctions for breach of contract. They also hope that the bid will foster a much-needed discussion of Kazakhstan’s human rights issues. Human rights defenders are not hopeful that the host nation will live up to its obligations, however, because Beijing, China is the only other remaining candidate city, and protesters languished in prison long after the 2008 summer games they hosted ended.
According to HRW, Kazakhstan’s human rights situation has gone “from bad to worse.” New laws allow police to quickly break up protests of even a few people, and the nation’s recent United Nations Universal Periodic Review criticized policies limiting the freedom of expression and assembly. As a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and signatory to applicable treaties, Kazakhstan may be contravening its obligations. For instance, Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right of people to peacefully assemble. Since these obligations do not appear to have meaningfully affected Kazakh policies, human rights defenders are concerned that the current language of the IOC contracts will be equally ineffective.
As a result, activists are pressuring the IOC to take action, which has historically been an effective tactic. Responding to public outcry, the IOC investigated unpaid wages to workers in the run up to the Sochi games. It has responded to the recent controversy over human rights abuses by adding a clause to the contract that all host countries must sign, to “take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organization of the Games comply with local, regional, and national legislation, and international agreements and protocols, applicable in the host country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health, safety, and labour laws.” In response over the outcry of the Sochi games, the IOC has added non-discrimination language that will not take affect until after the 2022 games. The Olympic Charter states that the games are designed in part to advance the “harmonious development” of humanity and the “preservation of human dignity.” The language has no binding effect on host nations, however, and many nations would promise to follow the Charter with no real intention to live up to their word.
With the near certainty that the 2022 Olympic games will take place in an authoritarian nation with major human rights issues, activist are likely to continue their push for greater transparency. Past successes in pressuring the sporting bodies appear to be a powerful way for activists to pressure nations to live up to their obligations.