On February 2014, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia—expected to be most expensive Games in history—will launch. The Russian government has invested in state-of-the-art winter sports venues and infrastructure in this Black Sea resort and in the nearby Caucasus Mountains. But the run-up to the Games has been marred by abuses against Sochi residents and migrant workers toiling on Olympic construction, and by the adoption of a discriminatory antigay law. The IOC, National Olympic Committees and corporate sponsors should urge Russia to end these abuses which violate the principles of “human dignity” and non-discrimination enshrined in the Olympic Charter, and work to prevent similar abuses by future Olympic host cities.
The Russian government is resettling some 2,000 families to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure. But not all of those evicted received fair compensation for their properties and in some cases, homeowners were forced out with no compensation at all. Many resettled residents lost a portion of their livelihoods because they depended on agriculture or income from seasonal rentals in their seaside homes.
Migrant worker abuses
The transformation of Sochi from a small resort town to international Olympic host has been made possible by more than 70,000 workers, including tens of thousands of migrant workers from outside of Russia. Many of these migrant workers face exploitation – with employers failing to pay their wages, confiscating workers’ passports, and forcing them to toil up to 12 hours a day with only one day off each month – all in violation of Russian law.
Press and civil society crackdown
Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for independent journalists, who face threats, harassment, and lawsuits. As reported by CPJ, 56 Russian journalists have been murdered since 1992. Some journalists have been told that reporting on Olympics-related environmental concerns or evictions is taboo. In the past year Russian authorities have not only clamped down on the press by passing new laws on Internet content, they also targeted civil society with laws restricting public assemblies and nongovernmental organizations.
Environmental experts warn that the construction of a new road and a high-speed railway has damaged Sochi’s Mzymta River and the fragile local ecosystem of the surrounding Sochi National Park. The dumping of illegal construction waste and the construction of power lines have resulted in landsides, causing homes to sink and partially collapse, threatening residents’ health and safety. In one village, Olympic construction destroyed local drinking wells, leaving villagers with no reliable drinking water source for years.
On June 29, 2013, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a discriminatory bill banning the promotion of information about “non-traditional” sexuality. This law clearly violates the Olympic Charter, which states that “any form of discrimination… on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement” (6th Fundamental Pinciple of Olympism) and that the IOC’s role is, among other duties, “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement” (article 2-6).
What We Want:
The IOC should insist that Russia stop the illegal eviction of people from their homes without adequate compensation as it builds the Olympic venues. The authorities should not sue homeowners in efforts to force them to accept lower compensation or avoid paying compensation altogether. Although unlawfully evicted property owners will never get their homes back, they should be fairly compensated.
Migrant worker abuses
The IOC should insist that its partner, Olympstroy, the state company constructing Olympic venues, its subcontractors, and all other businesses engaged in Olympic construction, pay workers fully and on time and pay owed back wages. They should return workers’ passports and guarantee working hours and days off consistent with Russian law. Housing and food, when part of compensation, should meet minimum standards. Authorities should create a means for migrant workers to safely lodge complaints against employers and hold abusive employers to account.
Press and civil society crackdown
Thousands of Russian and foreign journalists will cover the Sochi Winter Olympics. They should be able to show the full picture of life in Russia. As required by the Olympic Charter, the IOC should insist on freedom of the press for foreign and Russian journalists alike, which is consistent with the country’s responsibility to welcome the international community as host of the Games.
The IOC should insist that Russian authorities compensate and assist Sochi residents whose homes and health have been harmed by the Games’ preparations. The IOC should also push authorities to ensure all Olympics-related construction follows the law and that all companies obtain environmental and other permits. Russia should continue repairing environmental damage after the Games are over.
Human Rights Watch has urged the IOC to forcefully remind the Russian authorities that any form of discrimination —including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity—violates Russia’s human rights and Olympic commitments. The IOC should publicly affirm its commitment to the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in the Olympic Charter, and demand that Russian authorities guarantee the safety as well as the freedom of expression and association of all athletes, team members and visitors who will attend the Sochi Games.
…And a clear need for long-term reform:
The Olympics and rights
Human Rights Watch’s experience documenting abuses by countries hosting the Olympic Games strongly suggests that, without solid human rights commitments and monitoring from the IOC, future host countries with dicey rights records could see similar violations in the run-up to the Games. To curb this, the IOC should publicly take a zero-tolerance stance on such abuses, including those by Russia. The IOC should also establish a standing committee to monitor Olympics-related human rights concerns and measure the impact the Games have on host countries’ human rights environments.