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With China, IOC Turns Its Back on Human Rights

July 31, 2015

The International Olympic Committee's decision to award the 2022 Winter Olympics Host City to Beijing blatantly ignores the current government crackdown of unprecedented scale targeting human rights lawyers and defenders in China, as well as a water shortage that has already reached crisis levels. This decision will further harm China’s most vulnerable groups and also undermine what remains of the IOC's credibility. The international Olympic community must now take a hard look in the mirror and ask what human and environmental cost it is willing to force on the Chinese people.

The decision comes at a time when both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights are worsening in China. Since early July, Chinese authorities have disappeared, detained, and interrogated more than 260 human rights lawyers and defenders from 23 provinces and municipalities. At the same time, a propaganda campaign in state-controlled media has accused targeted lawyers and defenders of being members of a “criminal syndicate”—a campaign intended to smear the reputations of all human rights lawyers in China. To date, 30 individuals are still in custody, under residential surveillance, or missing. Some are being accused of “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Family members too, including a minor child, have been targeted, intimidated, or attacked. This crackdown on key actors in China who ensure the protection of rights and the integrity of a legal system has triggered expressions of grave concern from different sectors of the international community, including governments, UN experts, national bar and lawyers’ associations, and NGOs. The IOC’s decision to dismiss the ongoing crackdown in its evaluation process disparages the work and sacrifice of China’s frontline human rights defenders.

In addition, awarding the Winter Games to China will almost certainly worsen the already severe water shortage gripping the country, particularly in the North, where the events will be held. In 2014, according to the UN, Northern China had only 200 cubic meters of water resources per person per year—one fifth of what is considered a safe standard. Yet Beijing claimed in its bid for the Games that it will have enough water resources in the Games Zones for snow sports, and can make sufficient snow “without affecting citizens’ daily life.”

The IOC acknowledged the water crisis in its evaluation report, stating that “Northern China suffers from severe water stress and the Beijing—Zhangjiakou area is becoming increasingly arid.” It further said that it believed Beijing to be both underestimating the amounts of water that would be needed for snowmaking and could be recaptured from the process. However, today’s vote suggests that, in the end, it was satisfied by Beijing’s pathetic assurances that: “We have the capacity to rely on artificial snow-making and we will fully comply with all snow requirements.”

As China has proven time and again, it can accomplish incredible feats, no doubt including hosting impressive Winter Olympics. The question is: at what human and environmental cost?