Thursday, February 07, 2008

NZ Athletes Banned From Having Political Opinion at Olympics

By Charlotte Cuthbertson and Matthew Little
Feb 04, 2008

OLYMPIC OPINION: A poster used by the 'Free Tibet' campaign used to highlight human rights abuse under the communist regime in China. NZ Athletes are being told to keep quiet about the rights abuses while at the Olympics this year. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
OLYMPIC OPINION: A poster used by the 'Free Tibet' campaign used to highlight human rights abuse under the communist regime in China. NZ Athletes are being told to keep quiet about the rights abuses while at the Olympics this year. (Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) will prohibit New Zealand athletes from making political comments at Olympic venues in Beijing.

This follows an announcement from the Belgium Olympic Committee last week saying, "Not a single participant in the Games will be allowed to give a political opinion at the Olympic venues."

Belgium athletes are also prohibited from wearing any insignia protesting China's human rights violations.

NZOC Secretary General Barry Meister said they, "will absolutely tell their athletes they will not be allowed to have a political opinion at the Olympics."

He said New Zealand athletes will sign a contract to that effect before departing for Beijing this year – as they do every Olympics.

The Canadian and United States Olympic committees will not follow Belgium's example and have said they will not put any restrictions on what their athletes can and cannot say in relation to China.

Meister said the Olympic Movement has done an incredible amount of good work around the world, and have been a "force for good" in every country they have been held, including Moscow and Berlin.

He said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) never stated they awarded the Olympics to Beijing on the proviso of an improved human rights record, but that, "it was about opening doors".

Meister said it was up to governments and politicians to deal with human rights issues, saying, "We don't have discussions around those things."

The Olympics were awarded to China July 13, 2001, and at that time IOC director general Francois Carrard highlighted the human rights issues in China.

"We are totally aware at the IOC, there is one issue on the table ... and that is human rights. Human rights is a very serious issue in the entire world. It is not up to the IOC to interfere in this issue, but we are taking the bet that seven years from now, we sincerely and dearly hope we will see many changes."

Michael Craig, chair of Canadian-based China Rights Network, a coalition of 11 rights organizations that includes Amnesty International and Students for a Free Tibet said the Olympics were the opportunity to improve the human rights situation in China.

"To my mind the IOC has an obligation to challenge China because China made all these promises in order to get the Games—and China obviously has not followed through on those promises."

"When governments or sports bodies fail to speak up about human rights in China and then go there and treat the situation as though it's completely normal they are in fact endorsing human right abuses and repression. So that, in fact, is what I think the Belgian government is doing," said Craig.

Amnesty International is concerned that the human rights situation has actually deteriorated in many ways since China was granted the Olympics.

According to Amnesty International the increased persecution of human rights defenders and journalists was of particular concern.

In one report, Amnesty International said the Chinese regime introduced legislation that would increase the freedom of foreign journalists but that this was done "against a background of increased official controls over the distribution of foreign news within China and a renewed crackdown on domestic journalism, including print, broadcast and online media."

Amnesty International New Zealand spokesperson Margaret Taylor said they are about to launch their six-month Olympic campaign.

She said the campaign would focus on the areas of the death penalty, fair trials, arbitrary detention, human rights defenders, and media and Internet freedom.

"We welcomed the Olympics Olympics in China – on the basis that human rights improved," she said.

Ms Taylor said New Zealand athletes and sporting bodies can expect to hear from Amnesty in the next few months to ensure that athletes are "fully aware" of the human rights situation in China.

Olympic Watch spokesperson Peter Kutilek said that the crackdown on media is "a most distressing issue," given that Beijing promised complete media freedom by the time of the Olympics.

"That's something that the International Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees, Olympic sponsors and athletes have the right and responsibility to speak about and they should," said Kutilek.

Kutilek condemned Belgium's intention to censor athletes. "It is certainly sad when anyone tries to limit the freedom of speech, whether it's the Chinese government or the Olympic committee."

But Kutilek said Belgian athletes need not stop themselves from speaking on human rights issues because those topics do not fall within the arena of "political opinion" that Belgium has prohibited the athletes from speaking about. "Human rights are not a political issue," he said.

"Human rights are something outside and beyond politics and the athletes and the Olympic committees should speak about their concerns about human rights being violated in China, especially in relation to the Olympic Games," he said.

"We're not saying what party should rule China, we're just saying human rights need to be respected in China and human dignity needs to be respected in China. Human dignity is one of the key Olympic values. If human dignity is not respected in China then athletes have the right and responsibility to speak out about it."

Kutilek added that it is particularly important for Olympic committees and athletes to speak out on human rights violations directly connected to the Olympics, such as the massive number of forced evictions that have taken place in Beijing so that Olympic venues or related businesses could be built.

Edward McMillan-Scott, a British politician and European Parliament vice president, was disappointed when he heard of Belgium's censorship of it's athletes.

"This is part of the sad capitulation by governments around the world to China's economic weight," he said.

"Most human beings recognize that China is also the world's worst tyranny. The Olympic Games offered China the chance of reform but this has been replaced by a massive crackdown on all forms of dissent including religious expression."

McMillan-Scott, who previously called for Britain to boycott the Olympics said, "We will be appealing to the Belgian Parliament for an urgent debate on the [Olympic committee's] decision."

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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