The human rights record of the Chinese Communist Party government has been a matter of closer examination since the International Olympic Committee decided the 2008 Olympic Games would be held in Beijing. The current violence in Tibet has increased that focus.
The argument made by many people was the extra global scrutiny that would occur with the holding of the Games in Beijing would encourage the Chinese government to improve its very poor human rights record, as the eyes of the world would be watching. As recently as this week, senior government Minister, Senator John Faulkner, argued in the Senate that
The greater international focus the Olympics will bring can serve only to give the international community a greater understanding of China, including its diversity and its complex challenges, and give China a deeper appreciation of international norms, ultimately assisting in a better human rights situation in China.
I can understand the reasoning behind this argument. Unfortunately, almost all the independent evidence suggests that the human rights record of the Chinese government has not improved since they were awarded the 2008 Olympics. If anything, it has continued to get worse. The recent crackdown against protests in Tibet, including the tight control and suppression of information out of Tibet, is a stark example of that.
It is worth noting that the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, part of the Olympic Charter adopted by the IOC, include the following:
- Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
- The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity
- Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.
As Senator Faulkner also said in the Senate
human rights abuses continue to occur in China, and China continues to fall short of international expectations, including with regard to the death penalty, torture, non-judicial detention and restrictions of freedoms of expression and information.
The people currently protesting in Tibet will be at risk of receiving just that sort of treatment from the Chinese government – unfair trials, torture, ‘re-education’ and forced labour and potentially even the death penalty – all conducted beneath a cloak of secrecy.
The Chinese government’s oppression and suppression of its own people extends to much more than its actions in Tibet. There are more executions carried out in China than every other country combined, with the organs of executed people sometimes used in transplants. The use of torture and forced labour – often after seriously flawed judicial processes – is also well documented. Constraints of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of information are severe. Human rights and pro-democracy activists, Uighers and especially Falun Gong practitioners are subjected to serious persecution.
I fully recognise that boycotting the Beijing Olympics will not stop all the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. I know that a boycott is a blunt and very imperfect instrument and is in many ways extremely unfair on athletes who have sacrificed enormous amounts. But I can’t stop thinking that the Olympics presents a very rare opportunity for the people of the world to send a message that is so strong that even an enormously powerful government like the Chinese regime will be unable to ignore it or dismiss it.
Everyone knows that the Chinese government does not have a good record on human rights. But I don’t think it is fully appreciated just how appalling current practices are. I am all for maintaining dialogue and communication to try to encourage improvement. But eventually one has to recognise that in some circumstances that is not enough.
It is not unreasonable to draw parallels with the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936 when Adolf Hitler was in power. In hindsight, do people believe it was right for Australia to have participated in that? Does anyone seriously suggest that Hitler improved his human rights record as a result of Berlin hosting the Games? Of course, international norms around human rights have developed enormously since those days, in part in reaction to what Hitler did in ensuring years.
Last year, the previous Australian government was happy to tell the Australian cricket team not to tour Zimbabwe. In part this was due to player safety, but it was mostly with the aim of not giving Robert Mugabe the propaganda victory of hosting the Australian cricket team. If the Olympic Games were being held in Zimbabwe or other countries such as Burma, I am sure that many more people would be suggesting Australia shouldn’t be part of it.
Unlike the United Nations or international diplomacy or even economic sanctions, the Olympics is not a government run vehicle. While it is run through the auspices of the IOC, the Olympic Games is a coming together of people, not government entities. And each of us as individuals has an opportunity to voice our views about the Olympics, and the actions of the government in the country it is being held in.
A “peoples’ boycott” isn’t about governments saying their nation won’t participate. Nor is it just about pressuring athletes not to participate. Athletes can participate but still strongly voice their concerns about the serious human rights abuses. People can refuse to attend the Games. People can pressure governments to make stronger statements and demand they use their influence. People can pressure the many corporations who are sponsoring the Beijing Games to make statement and to use their position to demand real change, and refuse to buy their products if they will not act. Sponsors include Visa, Kodak, Samsung, Panasonic, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, General Electric, and Coca-Cola. They clearly have both economic and diplomatic power to exert influence on the Chinese regime. Given the clear evidence of major human rights abuses in China, failure for them to act is a legitimate cause for criticism.
There was a debate in the Senate on Monday regarding the situation in Tibet. You can read my speech at this link. I have already linked above to Senator Faulkner’s speech. Here are links to speeches from the Liberal Party’s Marise Payne are the Greens’ Bob Brown.
This link is to an online petition, which you can add your name to if you support calls for human rights in Tibet to be respected. GetUp! has also put up a petition, which you can access here. GetUp’s site also has a blog post from Tenzin Atisha, the Dalia Lama’s representative in Australia.