Major sporting events like the Olympics often lead to major human rights violations, and the situation unfolding ahead of the Summer Games next month in Rio de Janeiro is shaping up as a depressing replay, human rights activists warn.
Authoritarian governments with records of human rights violations often offer bids to host international sporting events as efforts to boost their global reputations.
Though promising to improve human rights and living conditions for local residents, the winning bidders for the Olympics have often resorted instead to forced evictions, labor violations and violence before the torch is officially lit, Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said in a briefing last week.
In recent years, Brazil has won the right to host a pair of major sporting events: soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Pedro Abramovay, who worked for the Brazilian government until 2011, said legal and constitutional procedures were swept aside repeatedly as event preparation was used as an excuse to coerce citizens.
“These events are a factory of corruption and inequality,” said Mr. Abramovay, who now works for Open Society Foundations. “We are one month from the games, and the feeling in Rio is more unequal, more violent, and human rights are violated even more than before we had the Olympics.”
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A report by the Rio-based Popular Committee on the World Cup and the Olympics, a watchdog group that was compiling a Facebook page in December tracking what it said were economic and political abuses related to the games, charged that over 4,000 families had lost their homes because of World Cup and Summer Olympics infrastructure construction. The government says the displacements are unrelated to the events.
Maracana Stadium, built for the World Cup, is set to stage the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics. It has been renovated three times since 2000 — the latest at a cost of over $500 million. Less than a mile away, families live in makeshift houses with no sanitation, the London Daily Mail reported.
But poverty isn’t Rio’s only problem. Records show 645 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro killed by military police last year, and Mr. Abramovay said reports for this year will be much higher.
According to Amnesty International, police killed 84 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro in May alone — a 90 percent increase compared with the same period last year.
Amnesty International analysts said they fear history is repeating itself in Brazil. In Sao Paulo, police killings increased 80 percent in the months surrounding the World Cup. The government has allocated $26 million to deploy military soldiers to guard the games by posting up in nearby slums, where most police violence occurred around the monthlong global soccer tournament.
Ms. Worden said if a host country doesn’t have a functioning legal system or strong free press guarantees, then hosting an event like the Olympics will only exacerbate abuses. Though Brazil’s government promised to improve security when it was awarded host status for the Olympics in 2009, Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil, said conditions have only deteriorated — with 2,500 police killings since 2009.
The Olympics will test the government’s openness. Protests have been announced for the week of the opening ceremony, with days of activism Aug. 1-5. The Facebook event titled “Let’s Extinguish the Torch in Rio” to be held Aug. 2 says to expect as many as 14,000 demonstrators.
“Governments who bid to host are not being held to their pledges,” Ms. Worden said, citing as examples the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 and the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, six years later. “These are knowable problems, they are anticipatable and they are preventable.”
Activists spoke last week at the Atlantic Council about these sorts of problems. Human Rights Watch called the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing a “catalyst for human rights abuses,” with massive forced evictions, a surge in arrests, detentions and harassment of dissidents, and repeated violations of media freedom and increased political repression.
“Hu Jia, one of the great civil rights activists in China, was arrested and got three years in prison for testifying to the European Parliament that human rights were not improving — as if to prove the point,” Ms. Worden said. “And we had a replay of these exact abuses in the run-up to the Sochi Games.”
Countries that make unrealistic promises for improvement shouldn’t be allowed to host in the first place, several critics argued. David Kramer, a senior director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, said countries should meet baseline requirements in order to host.
“If North Korea applied to host the Olympics, everyone would say, ‘That’s ridiculous; North Korea is the worst state in the world,’” Mr. Kramer said. “But what about Russia hosting the [soccer] World Cup in 2018? Russia invaded Ukraine. It violates the human rights of its people. That, to me, would be a disqualifier.”
Mr. Kramer said fewer democratic states want to host these massively expensive and disruptive sporting events, so the opportunity falls to countries with more mixed democratic records. Activists say they are already concerned about 2022, when Beijing will host the Winter Olympics and Qatar will host the World Cup.
Qatar, where foreign migrant workers make up 90 percent of the work force, is expected to have sharply rising rates of labor abuse as the country builds a dozen stadiums for the games, Sunjeev Bery of Amnesty International said.
“If you have $200 billion worth of infrastructure,” Ms. Worden said, “you are absolutely going to have $200 billion worth of human rights offenses if you do not put up safeguards.”