Putting rights issues through the looking glass. Not seeking answers, just some food for thought to see whether things could be any different!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mission Boycott Beijing: How effective?

Someone once said that sports and politics do not mix. Apparently, they do or at least that is what some human rights groups across the world will have us believe. China’s “Olympian” human rights challenges can only be effectively countered by boycotting the Beijing Olympics. The International Olympic Committee is being urged to withdraw in criticism of China’s poor human rights record; corporate sponsors are being asked to back out from sponsoring the world’s biggest sporting event, because a few years ago, countries and coalitions allowed Beijing the bid to host the Olympics. The Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by human rights activists who referred to the torch as the ‘symbol of bloodshed and oppression’ in China, forgetting that the Olympic torch is merely a sporting symbol, above all else and has little to do with China’s oppressive regime.

We are being told by these human rights groups that boycotts are an effective tool of raising human rights awareness in a country where not only is the human rights situation abysmal but the word ‘human rights’ is virtually missing from the vocabulary of the government. Propaganda will also try to convince us that the Olympics are not “about the athletes” who have been toiling away for the last few years to participate in a sporting event which is not about sports, anyway. The example of South Africa is too often quoted by these campaign and advocacy experts as a successful boycott. Yes, apartheid did end in South Africa but not because a sporting ban was imposed. Decades of active crusading by the African National Congress and their anti-apartheid movement coupled with strong international pressure through economic sanctions and socio-political isolation ended the practice of racial discrimination there. As far as the representation of black persons in sport in South Africa is concerned, a quick look at their national cricket team will answer a few queries!

Political boycotts in the history of Olympics are not entirely uncommon. The 1980 Moscow Olympics was boycotted by the United States and Canada in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Bloc countered by not participating in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. All this was at the height of the Cold War and there is little evidence to show that these boycotts served as an ice breaker between the Cold War parties. The long standing feud between Palestine and Israel was further aggravated when, at the 1972 Munich Games, Palestinian guerrillas killed seventeen people from both sides of the turf. It is anybody’s guess as to what was achieved by using the Olympics as a political tool by some. Innocent lives were lost, the games were temporarily disrupted but in the spirit of the Olympics, the games continued later. As far as the Palestine-Israel conflict is concerned, there is so sign of resolution to date, more than three and a half decades later. But the boycott plea is gaining such momentum in some human rights circles, that even the tragic Munich incident is being flagged as a successful political protest. Seriously, whose side are these people on?

There is no denying the fact of China’s oppressive, anti human rights regime- from capital punishment, lack of media freedom, arbitrary detention, displacement of people for the Games without proper rehabilitation to the more recent crackdown on protestors in Tibet – Chinese policy on human rights has innumerable loopholes to plug. There is also no denying the fact of China’s super power status- so influential an economic force it has become, that even respected, well-established democracies like India, do not openly protest against the repressive regime, dismissing it as China’s ‘internal’ affair. Yes, the Olympics is a large platform attracting international media attention and this platform should be used to focus on China’s flaws and lobby for human rights reform in China in the background. Sport is and should remain the priority at the Olympics and the core of the sporting event should not be compromised. A little show of faith (if possible) may encourage China to engage in international dialogue, whether it is on the contentious Tibet issue or its human rights, who knows. The idea of an Olympic boycott is an unreasonable demand and should be immediately abandoned. It will be to everyone’s advantage if human rights groups focus on the human rights concerns in China at the Olympics without disrupting the games. It is difficult to say what this campaign will achieve but one positive aspect is that it will serve as a learning lesson for all countries, including India, helping them understand the accountability and responsibility that comes with hosting an international event of such magnitude.