From the European Games to Formula 1: How Sport is Ignoring Human Rights

The photo -- and the event itself -- gave the president a patina of international legitimacy and credibility. That's exactly why the International Olympic Committee, whose values purport to be 'Friendship, Respect, Excellence,' should never have permitted the European Games to take place in Azerbaijan, a country with a dismal human rights record.
08/04/2015 10:00 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2016

At the European Games in June, the president of Azerbaijan squeezed onto the podium with compatriot Ilham Zakiyev, the judo gold medal winner, for a photo that ended up in news around the world.

The photo -- and the event itself -- gave the president a patina of international legitimacy and credibility. That's exactly why the International Olympic Committee, whose values purport to be 'Friendship, Respect, Excellence,' should never have permitted the European Games to take place in Azerbaijan, a country with a dismal human rights record. Tragically, the Grand Prix and Formula 1 are following in the European Games' footsteps, giving the president two more opportunities to benefit from the same sort of publicity in 2016.

What are the implications for this sort of international publicity? As one of Azerbaijan's few remaining human rights activists put it: "The European Games are a major PR effort by the Azeri Government to put image over reality. The reality is that independent minds in our country are dying."

Azerbaijan's government invested over $8bn of its oil wealth in the European Games, a sporting event that is owned and ​is ​being run by the European Olympic Committee. Planned three years ago, when oil prices were high, the games initially seemed like an affordable investment that could enhance the country's profile. Today, however, they have increasingly appeared to be an expensive boondoggle for an economy that can ill afford it. Since last June, oil prices have fallen by 43%, crippling Azerbaijan's economy and leading to a recent 34% reduction in the value of its currency.

This isn't to say that all sectors of the Azeri economy are hurting: many companies are still making a lot of money from construction. But even this glint of economic health comes ​​at a steep price​: Azerbaijan's infrastructure projects were partially funded by a ​European Games tax​​ on all public employees.

Hiding The Truth

​The Azerbaijani ​​government desperately needs two things: an independent media to shine a light on corruption, and a bold civil society that is ready to take action. It used to have both, but 10 years of repression have smothered them.

The story of ​one investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, ​​offers a glimpse into Azerbaijan's repression. As the host of a show on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ismayilova​, reported on the vast holdings and personal wealth of the Azeri ​​president's family until her arrest -- and detainment -- in December on charges of inciting suicide. The move, which has been widely criticized as retaliation for her reporting and an attempt to silence dissenting voices by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations, came after. ​Azerbaijan passed laws drastically curtailing freedom of the press and protecting Azeri presidents from prosecution.

Activists have also come under attack. Last month, Rasul Jafarov, a lawyer and human rights advocate in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment for illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion​,​ and abuse of official powers -- charges that the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights ​claims are politically motivated.

Arguably Azerbaijan's most effective tool for strangling dissent has been the "foreign funding" laws that have cut off any international philanthropy to national organizations working on community development, environmental protection, workers' protection​ or the defense of human rights.

The Role Of Business

A number of big businesses in Azerbaijan, both domestic and international, appear to be taking advantage of this repression. A protester who works on labor issues (who spoke on condition of anonymity) ​says that Azeri law prohibits most temporary job contracts, yet these are now endemic in agribusiness and international oil companies.

Workers aren't in a position to criticize these moves: the drop in oil prices has also led to rapid job losses, and many laid-off workers have not received the minimum legal compensation that companies are required to give. A handful of lawyers are still taking cases to court, but many fear that -- even ​​if they win -- the awards will never be paid.

There are numerous ways in which these major international investors - particularly those involved in the European Games - could influence the Azeri government. For example, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has asked all of the games' major sponsors to ​use their leverage to pressure the Azeri Government to uphold human rights. Unfortunately, the overwhelming message from companies has been that this is not their responsibility.​

However, there are signs that global sporting event sponsors are increasingly realizing that human rights -- especially in repressive states -- can have a huge impact on their branding. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit ​​survey​ found that ​85 percent of senior corporate executives agreed that "sponsors of major global sporting events should use their influence to ensure the rights of workers and local communities involved with the preparation are respected by all."

In May, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre questioned Fifa sponsors and partners about their sponsorship, human rights and workers' rights. Most companies did not respond, but Coca-Cola and Adidas both indicated that they encourage FIFA to engage with governments on human rights issues. I​n a separate statement on labor rights violations associated with the Qatar World Cup, Visa said ​that ​it had urged Fifa "to take all necessary actions to... remedy this situation."

Human rights advocates never had much hope that the Azeri government would use the European Games as an opportunity to pardon the protesters and activists who it has unjustly imprisoned. It's just as unlikely to happen at the Grand Prix in Azerbaijan next year. But if Formula 1 ends up being sold, it could prove an opportunity for change.

It's time for Formula 1, Fifa, IOC and their big-brand corporate sponsors to decide whether they want global sport to be associated with human rights violations, or with the core values that the global public naturally associate with sport: friendship, mutual respect, fair-play and excellence. The choice of host states for global sporting events is an integral part of how that decision will play out.

Phil Bloomer is the executive director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. He has over 25 years' experience in social justice advocacy and campaigning. Phil joined the Resource Centre after 18 years at Oxfam, including eight as Campaigns and Policy Director and 11 years in Latin America. Phil recently returned from a trip to Azerbaijan where he met with communities, civil society and business to discuss the impacts of the European Games and the wider human rights situation in the country.

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