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Olympic Tide Turns Toward Free Speech and Human Rights
Cindy Drukier and Charlotte Cuthbertson, The Epoch Times

Tide Turning

Earlier this month, Hollywood icon Stephen Spielberg quit as artistic advisor to the Beijing Games in protest over the Chinese regime's support of Sudan's genocide in Darfur.

Prince Charles has stated that won't go to Beijing because of the occupation of Tibet.

Public pressure has forced National Olympic Committees to back down on gagging their athletes from voicing political opinion at the games.

The Christian Union Party, junior member of the Dutch ruling coalition, is now calling for a boycott of the Olympic opening ceremony as a human rights protest, reported Reuters on Feb. 18.

Eight Nobel Peace laureates, Western politicians, Olympians, and entertainers like Mia Farrow sent a joint letter to Chinese party leader Hu Jintao on Feb. 12 to add pressure to the Darfur issue.

E.U. Vice President Edward McMillan Scott has been calling for nothing short of an outright boycott of the games since he conducted his investigation into the Chinese regime's practice of harvesting organs from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.

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 "The Olympic Games offered China the chance of reform but this has been replaced by a massive crackdown on all forms of dissent including religious expression."

In a recent House of Lords debate, three members were highly critical of China's rights record citing that the regime has "no tradition of deference to human rights."

Reporters Without Borders has a growing list of French and other celebrities wearing its T-shirt in a campaign against the lack of press freedoms in China, which Beijing promised would not accompany the Olympics. The shirt has handcuffs set in a design of the Olympic rings.

Last November, U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff and eight of his colleagues sent a letter to Liu Qi, Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) President, expressing their deep concern "about the lack of improvement of the human rights situation in China. Despite explicit promises made by Chinese government officials in 2001, the Chinese government has not taken serious steps to expand basic rights and freedom."

OC Position

The contention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), when it awarded China the honors back in 2001, was that the games would be a force of change. IOC President Jaques Rogge told BBC's Hardtalk that he was "convinced that the Olympic Games will improve human rights in China."

IOC Vice-President Canadian Dick Pound said, "The human rights problems remain an issue, but it is more of a challenge and an opportunity for the Olympic movement to make a contribution to some of its own goals—which is to put sport at the service of mankind everywhere and maybe bring about some change."

The Olympic Charter states that sport must be "at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

The IOC now says that there is a widespread misconception "human rights promises" were ever sought by the IOC in the first place, according to a CNN report release a year before the games.

Olympic Bid Campaign

Throughout the Olympic bid campaign, the international human rights community had doggedly lobbied the IOC not to reward communist China for its poor human rights record by allowing the regime to host the Olympic Games.

The week prior to the final vote, the European Parliament passed a resolution saying, "China's disastrous record on human rights makes Beijing an unsuitable venue for the 2008 Olympic Games."

The argument worked in 1993, when China lost the bid for the 2000 games because the Tiananmen Square Massacre was still fresh in the world's mind, but the moral indignation did not hold in 2001.

According to Human Rights Watch, "China's aggressive campaign for those games was accompanied by tightened controls on fundamental freedoms, even as members of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese officials themselves argued that the games would be good for human rights."

The Chinese Communist Party itself tacitly admitted to human rights abuses by promising to improve. "By entrusting the holding of the Olympic Games to Beijing, you will contribute to the development of human rights," said the Chinese Olympic committee at the time.

However, during the final 10 months of the Olympic bid campaign, Beijing's Mayor Liu Qi told a public rally that in preparation for the bid, he would "resolutely smash and crack down on Falun Gong," and clear the city of beggars, the homeless, and prostitutes, as reported by Reuters in January 2001.

Liu Qi subsequently became President of BOCOG, and by all reports, has made good on his promises.

Far from being a positive force for change, human rights advocates claim that things have actually gotten worse in China because of the Olympics.

Olympics 'Endorsing Repression'

At the end of January, Belgium's Olympic committee issued a statement saying, "Not a single participant in the Games will be allowed to give a political opinion at the Olympic venues. Nor could athletes wear any distinctive insignia protesting China's human rights violations."

The United Kingdom and New Zealand soon followed suit, causing storms of protest in their respective countries. Britons were quick to point out the eerie similarity to 1936 when U.K. athletes were obliged to "Heil" Hitler.

Both Olympic Committees have now publicly back-peddled although amended clauses have yet to be made public.

The New Zealand athletes agreement went much further than the Olympic Charter's clause 51.3, which states, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The government intervened and on Feb. 19 Sports Minister Clayton Cosgrove confirmed that the New Zealand Olympic Committee would be recommending the offending clause be brought in line with the Olympic Charter.

Green Party Sports spokesperson Keith Locke, a staunch critic of the clause, was pleased with the about-face.

Mr. Locke said a major reason the Olympics were awarded to Beijing was to spotlight the human rights situation, "and thus help advance the principles of freedom so central to the Olympic movement."

Michael Craig, chair of the Toronto-based China Rights Network, said that muzzling athletes is "in effect, endorsing repression, endorsing human rights abuses, endorsing torture." "Because silence signifies an approval of the Chinese system," he said.

Craig feels that the IOC took on an obligation in deciding to give a country like China the games, a country that promised to improve human rights in order to win the bid.

"Then I think it becomes incumbent upon the IOC to have the courage to challenge...China when they don't come through on the human rights front," said Craig.

"They don't need to become political, but they should at least stand up for themselves."

The controversies have forced other National Olympic Committees to state their positions clearly. So far, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan, and Spain have declared that they will not restrict their athletes in any way beyond the requirements of the Olympic Charter.

IOC Under Pressure to Uphold Olympic Movement

The IOC has failed to take up the human rights challenge with the Chinese regime, say Olympic watchers.
Students for a Free Tibet, a worldwide organization of Tibetans and their supporters, sent an open letter to Rogge in August 2007 expressing their disappointment with the IOC.

"Not only has the IOC failed to secure improvements in human rights in China but it has abetted suppression of dissent by Chinese authorities," says the letter.

Olympic Watch, an international monitoring group, also sent a letter to Rogge in May 2007 calling on the IOC to "immediately hold the Beijing Organizing Committee accountable for the lack of progress on human rights since 2001, when you awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing."

In September 2006, a coalition of human rights organizations that includes Reporters Without Borders and Olympic Watch issued a joint statement to the IOC stating that despite human rights activists' efforts, "the IOC has refused to face the reality in which Beijing 2008 is to take place."

The current IOC leadership may be "either too cynical, or too incompetent, or both, to protect the Olympic ideals and take a clear stance on the continuing human rights abuses in China," it added.

International human rights lawyer and co-author of reports exposing the Chinese regime's practice of organ harvesting, David Matas, says the IOC is abdicating its authority if it leaves "a dispute between the hosting committee and the global human rights community unresolved."

"Organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China, though happening in 2001, was not known then. Now it is known. It is inconceivable that the International Olympic Committee would have awarded the Games to China in 2001 if they accepted then that China was killing innocents in the thousands every year in order to sell their organs for large sums to transplant tourists," Matas said.

"What needs to be done is to ask the International Olympic Committee to exercise that authority."

Additional reporting by Joan Delaney in Victoria, Canada, Martin Croucher in London, U.K.

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