Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:56 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative 2:56, 21 March 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for leading this debate, which provides a valuable opportunity to consider the link between the role of international sport and human rights. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I emphasise that I draw in particular on my time as chair of the British Olympic Association at the time of the London 2012 Olympic Games. I also believe it is important to review the recent World Cup in Qatar.

Far from sportswashing human rights records, the hosting of major sporting events in countries where concern rightly exists about human rights actually does the opposite. It brings with it a spotlight into the darker recesses of the country, which generates action and change, in a way that, when the sporting spotlight is turned off, international attention and calls for change diminish. This debate effectively bears testimony to the fact that sport provides a platform to highlight, not hide, human rights abuses, as we have just heard through Najah’s story. I have long taken an active stance on issues concerning human rights. All Governments need to act decisively on human rights abuses, wherever they exist, by making the strongest representations to the country concerned. However, the question raised by today’s debate is about not condemnation of human rights violations but whether the cancellation or boycott of an international sporting event is the best way to promote change in the country concerned.

For example, was a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing 2022, for both able-bodied athletes in the Winter Olympic Games and disabled athletes in the Winter Paralympic Games, reasonable, proportionate and effective as the right way to change the course of Chinese domestic policy on human rights? If we are to ask sportsmen and sportswomen to walk away from their careers and close off the chance to compete on the ultimate stage for which they have made a lifetime of sacrifices then the athletes will rightly ask whether the Government are taking action on a much wider front. Calls for a boycott would be very different if trade, cultural exchanges and diplomatic relations were curtailed, rather than seeing growth in trade, the promotion of cultural exchanges and the strengthening of diplomatic relations, as was the case in Beijing.

I remember, as an athlete, being called on to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow. The team was being turned into a single political pawn to assuage the conscience of the Government of the day, who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No other action was proposed. I appreciate that it is not an easy question; indeed, it was made more difficult when, during the same month as the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on the grounds that the Government were sportswashing their human rights record, with criticisms of the international governing bodies aiding this practice, Governments around the world overwhelmingly elected China—as a champion of human rights—to the UN Human Rights Council, achieving 139 votes out of a possible 193.

Looking beyond the athletes to sports boycotts in the past, we find that they have a patchy record of effectiveness at best. Boycotts have been used to express opposition to patterns of gross human rights violations and to communicate the repugnance of the international community as a whole, or at least a large part of it, at the policies and practices of a particular nation or nations. All have been ineffective tools in this regard, with the one notable exception of South Africa. With the benefit of hindsight, few would deny the significant contributions, certainly at the moral and symbolic level, that the boycott made to the overthrow of the apartheid regime, but it was part of a much wider package of measures taken by the international community on the trade and diplomatic fronts.

There was a very personal sense of outrage at the heart of the apartheid debate—namely, abhorrence over racial discrimination anywhere and at any time. The success of the sporting boycott was due to the fact that the international community was in broad agreement over taking a wide and comprehensive range of punitive political measures against the South African Government, of which sport was actually tangential but important.

It is my view that, for actions of this kind to be effective in tackling what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has defined as sportswashing, they must have the broad support of the international community and be the product not of posturing or reprisal but of an astute and practical moral calculus, including a wide-ranging package of trade, travel and diplomatic measures to lead to action that will best advance the cause of human rights and the well-being of those whose rights are violated. Because surely all of us agree that politics and sport, regrettably, are intricately interwoven.

To address human rights issues in relation to international sporting events in isolation from the broader diplomatic framework would, I contend, serve no useful or realistic purposes. I absolutely respect the strength of feeling on human rights in this Chamber and count myself as part of that coalition. It is almost 50 years to the day that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I went to the Philippines as young MPs to write a critical report on the Philippine Government’s human rights abuses, but the reality is that life has changed in those 50 years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, rightly said, the centre of gravity in professional sport is effectively on the move. The 150 years during which the legacy of de Coubertin made its home in western Europe has shifted to the Middle East, and it will not come back to the West. If we pick out sportsmen and sportswomen to act as our champions to assuage our conscience over human rights abuses, we will have missed the central point: that the only losers in this scenario are actually the sportsmen and sportswomen concerned. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that sports boycotts, which are the necessary corollary of avoiding the concept of sportswashing, when used in isolation from the many tools at the disposal of Governments, have failed and are never likely to succeed. I do not see our Government imposing widespread economic and political sanctions and a trade ban, for example, on China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or India, to name a few.

On the contrary, I take the view that the significant advantage of international sporting events is their high media profile. This ensured that the spotlight of international attention shone brightly on Qatar during the World Cup. This spotlight, as it ranges over countries where human rights are a concern, will, in time, assist in bringing dividends. I take the view that international sport is a force for good in itself; that engagement is preferable to isolation; that precedents show sports boycotts rarely achieve their goals; and that seeking to impact countries through avoiding sporting contact is highly unlikely to achieve positive improvements on the ground. It could become a symbolic gesture, which would isolate and punish countries, and potentially prove to be a counterproductive and retrograde step.

Ultimately, and to me this point is overlooked by those supporting ceasing sporting contact with countries of concern regarding human rights, the greatest damage will befall sportsmen and sportswomen, and, in the case of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the overwhelming number of athletes who are not motivated by money. Neither the Olympic nor the world sporting movement, nor indeed anyone, should have expected sport alone to bring countries into line with international human rights standards. Expectations of sport-led metamorphosis are simply unrealistic, and real change in a country requires consolidating the position of that country’s domestic reformers and a wider international public recognition of human rights. I do not believe that international sport should be expected to solve a problem to which the Governments of the international community have yet to find an answer.

At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate the growing international influence of sport as the centre of gravity moves to the Middle East—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. Just as China’s human rights record fits uneasily with the Olympic ideals, so does the idea that sport can harbour prejudice, geographical or otherwise. Sport is about humanity, and the benefits of the Olympic Games continue to contribute to, not detract from, the changes we all seek.

The same underlying principles underpin international football. The moment Qatar won the bid, it recognised and knew that the spotlight during the World Cup in Doha would be focused on its human rights record. Qatar was in need of comprehensive reforms to its labour market, and I argue that the World Cup has in part led it to adopt labour standards that are the best in the region. It invited in the International Labour Organization and invited it to stay after the World Cup—the only country in the region to do that. The fiercely independent International Labour Organization’s reports on material improvements in occupational injuries and heat stress-related disorders were really important. Qatar reacted—it had to react—to international pressure and implemented measures to prevent passport confiscation, with the full removal of exit permits expanded to all workers in 2020. Of course, more can and must be done, but I argue that it is the very spotlight of international attention on major sporting events that accelerates progress in the alleviation of human rights abuses, in the same way that the immovable date for the opening ceremony in 2012 accelerated the regeneration of the East End of London by 10 years.

I well remember that, just after the curtain came down on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, I was sitting near here with representatives of human rights groups, whom I got to know well during the build-up to the Games in Beijing. A prominent and greatly respected senior campaigner looked at me and said, with a wry smile, that he privately wished that the Games would be hosted in Beijing every four years. For the human rights organisations, having the Games every quadrennium in Beijing would have been ideal, because the powerful Olympic torch, fuelled by the Olympic ideals, shone into the deeper recesses of China and gave strength to their important campaigns. But, sadly for him, the Games moved on to London, and the challenges to human rights records in China moved with them.