#08 sport
Wenzel Michalski / Sarah Klein

Interview: "They Simply Won't Shift"

Large sporting events also bring the political situation of the country in which they are held to the attention of the public, at least for a short time. We talked to the Germany Director of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, about the opportunities large events offer for drawing attention to human rights violations.

Mr Michalski, Europe has been gripped by football fever, the Olympics are just around the corner – do you still have time to sleep?

Well large events are not the only time we're active; we report on critical topics all the time. Though of course events of international interest like sporting events or the recent Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan mean a lot more requests from media representatives.

What sorts of activities is Human Rights Watch involved in at the moment?

We are not running any extra campaigns since we are always there, observing and reporting. But it does work to our advantage when large events draw attention to a country.

What is a Human Rights Watch campaign like?

If you are thinking about the Kony 2012 campaign, for example – we do nothing like that. Human Rights Watch gathers facts. We research and write up the results as reports and press releases for the public. We also directly approach decision-makers at ministries, organisations and institutions to bring problem situations to their attention.

The MTV Exit Campaign featured famous musicians filming trendy clips to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking – and was very successful. Is there nothing like that at Human Rights Watch?

No. Like Kony 2012, those clips were very emotionally charged, and both campaigns were primarily concerned with raising awareness. For that specific purpose, they were very good, and Human Rights Watch profited from them enormously. Interest in Kony, for example, increased, which meant were able to involve the press more intensively. But we take a different tack. We try to work more in the background as advocates. The videos we post on Youtube are classic documentaries in style. The large, emotionally charged – and therefore by necessity superficial – presentations bring many people to us. We then provide additional information.

At the start of this year Human Rights Watch published a report about Saudi Arabia's refusal to send women to the Olympic Games. In additional to Saudi Arabia there are only two other countries in the world – Qatar and Brunei – which have never sent a woman to the Olympic Games. These two countries do not categorically exclude women from competitive sports though, and Qatar even plans to send women to London. How did you approach the Saudis?

In such cases we generally work through third parties. If we tried to approach the Saudis directly, the conversation would be over faster than we can blink. In this case we asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – demanded might even be the better word – to talk with the Saudis. Just based on their own statues, the IOC is obligated to open dialogue in such cases. They did talk to the Saudis, though their efforts were not particularly satisfying.

In what sense?

They placed too much focus on maintaining "good contact" with the Saudis! For the IOC their "harmonious relationship" with the Saudis was more important than their own statutes. Their demands were not made vehemently enough. But how can we simply allow an entire segment of the population to be discriminated against – not to mention the health consequences of the sports ban for Saudi women. The IOC itself is trampling on the Olympic principle of equal rights for all. By breaking its own statutes, the IOC is sinking to the level of the rulers – and not just in Arabic countries. The IOC is a willing participant in image building, window dressing and whitewashing of autocratic systems. And that, of course, is something that we at Human Rights Watch continue to object to.

So the IOC should be more political?

We are not asking athletic associations or even athletes themselves to hold up signs and initiate political demonstrations – but they cannot allow themselves to be turned into mouthpieces for any respective ruler. The IOC often offers the justification that sports and politics should be separate – but that is impossible. If we organise and hold sporting events in or with such countries, sports and politics become inextricably linked.

Can you explain why the IOC's reaction has been so cautious?

It is all about maintaining their image. And that is exactly where we come in. The more public pressure the IOC experiences – and we will happily work to help generate this pressure – the faster it will react. To prevent damage to their image. Given their druthers, they would do nothing at all – they simply won't shift.

So there has been no agreement reached with the Saudis?

They might agree to send two or three women who might have a Saudi passport but actually live abroad. This does not solve the problem. It makes a mockery of the whole issue and doesn't move us forward at all.

Can Human Rights Watch hope to achieve anything in that case?

We understand, of course, that our demands and our report will not result in Saudi Arabia immediately allowing women to participate in sports. But: we can take this as an opportunity to bring the current state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia to the attention of everyone out there. There is one thing we can never forget: autocratic countries find it very unpleasant when such issues are brought to the international table. Just imagine the opening ceremonies, all the teams are entering the stadium, and all over the world commentators are saying about Saudi Arabia: "Ladies and gentlemen, do you notice the difference here? Only men are entering the stadium." Saudi Arabia does not want that kind of reporting. And that is how we can actually introduce change in these countries.

The awarding of the Olympic Games 2008 to Peking created a bit of an uproar beforehand, but the claim was made that it would strengthen human rights.

There too we were active worldwide and across all the media. But the only reason the IOC is now rethinking how it awards the games is because public pressure grew so large it had to worry about massage damage to its image. We developed a number of suggestions the IOC would do well to adopt. At the very least the committee should insist on those human rights essential to preparing for and holding the games: freedom of the press and of assembly, no exploitation of migrant workers and no persecution of critical voices.

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi in Russia. The controversial oil company Gazprom is contributing 400 million euros Environmentalists are saying that building the stadiums and arenas will cause irrevocable damage to a unique ecosystem – and in the Sochi National Park in the North Caucasus of all places, which is a world cultural heritage site. Yet this criticism has not been taken up in Russia by the national media.

Yes, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Just like in China during the run-up to the Summer Games, people are being driven out of their homes – without no or only small compensation – and workers are being exploited. In China it got to the point where critics simply disappeared. Now we are approaching the Western construction companies involved in creating the Olympic infrastructure in Sochi and trying to sensitise them to the problems.

With any success?

The companies are often completely taken aback when we approach them. They often know nothing about what has happened or don't see it as a problem. They tell us that subcontractors are in charge on location and that we should talk to them – but that is wrong and very shortsighted! We appeal to the contracting firm's responsibility. Often we are even talking about forced labour, slave labour and the exploitation of migrant workers.

During the football European Championship did Human Rights Watch also get involved in the Tymoschenko case?

That is an issue under discussion even without the championship. The attention of the greater public was not so much due to the Euro 2012. It was more that Tymoschenko herself is a driving force –through her hunger strike for one. Opinions differ of course on how the case should be reported. We make no judgment calls about what Ms Tymoschenko did or said in her political role. For us the woman's integrity is irrelevant and has no role to play in the assessment of her situation. The fact is that she is being treated poorly in a way that seems to constitute a human rights abuse. Independent observers need to be called in to decide: was she tortured or not? It was very unfortunate though that all the politicians who boycotted the European Championship only focused on the treatment of Tymoschenko.

What should they have done?

Tymoschenko is representative of many inmates, innumerable political prisoners held in Ukraine. Politicians and the media should protest the whole terrible situation. A trampling of freedom of the press and corruption are also problems that our politicians should be paying attention to. Critics in Ukraine live dangerously, a situation familiar from Russia.

For such large events how much time do you have to sensitise the public to the entire package?

Unfortunately the fact is that unless there is serious unrest and bloodshed in a country, like in Syria right now, media interest drops very quickly. This is easy to see with Azerbaijan – during the Eurovision Song Contest there were tons of critical reports on conditions inside the country. Now you won't find a word in the press on this issue anymore. But it's our job to stay on the ball and repeatedly suggest the topic to representatives of the press. There are some publications willing to keep reporting on these issues.

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