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Olympic body ‘remains neutral’ concerning US Commission’s call to postpone 2022 Beijing games

Uyghur protesters (Malcolm Brown/WikiCommons)
August 01, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday said it had to “remain neutral” on global political issues in response to a request from the U.S. Congressional commission that asked it to postpone and relocate the 2022 Beijing Winter Games if China does not end its human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The reply came in response to a letter that the bipartisan U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) sent to IOC president Thomas Bach. The commission made the letter public on July 23.

“No Olympics should be held in a country whose government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity,” said the letter by the CECC, an independent agency of the U.S. government that monitors human rights and rule of law developments in China.

In an email response to RFA’s request for comment on the letter, the IOC said on Tuesday that it had responded to the CECC, but that it had to maintain neutrality on political matters.

“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the IOC said. “Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee and a host does not mean that the IOC takes a position with regard to the political structure, social circumstances, or human rights standards in its country.”

The IOC went on to say that the organization upholds human rights as enshrined in the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter and in its code of ethics.

“All interested parties have to provide assurances that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be respected in the context of the Games, and both the Japanese and Chinese organizers have done so,” the IOC said, referring to the Summer Olympics now underway in Tokyo.

“At the same time, the IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country,” the organization said. “This must rightfully remain the legitimate role of governments and respective intergovernmental organizations.”

The IOC also said that it alone elects the host country for each edition of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and that its commercial partners have no role in or responsibility for selecting the host country.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department determined that the Chinese government’s actions against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the XUAR constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.

Olympic sponsors testify

Lawmakers on the CECC rebuked officials from five major U.S.-based corporate sponsors of the 2022 Beijing Olympics at a hearing on Tuesday, accusing them of protecting heir companies’ bottom lines instead of taking concrete action against China for the alleged genocide of Uyghurs in the XUAR.

Airbnb, Coca-Cola Company, Intel Corp., Proctor & Gamble Co., and Visa Inc. sponsor the Games through the IOC’s Olympic Partner (TOP) Program.

The commission members grilled the company executives over whether they would use their influence to insist on human rights improvements in China and pressure the IOC to change its policies so that it does not award Olympic Games to state sponsors of genocide.

“As the world watches the Olympics currently unfolding in Japan, the commission remains deeply disturbed that in less than seven months another Olympic Games are scheduled to begin in the shadow of some of the world’s most egregious human rights uses,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, the CECC chair, who opened the hearing.

Rep. Jim McGovern, the CECC co-chair, noted that Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. pulled its domestic Olympic TV ads “”to stop its brand image from being tarnished” amid strong public opposition to the current Tokyo Summer Games being held amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He also pointed out that chief executive officers of four other top Japanese companies did not attend the opening ceremony of the Games in their host country.

“In less than seven months, as has already been pointed out, the Winter Games are scheduled to take place in China, and unless things change quickly, the Beijing Games will be held under a cloud as well — a different cloud, a cloud of genocide, crimes against humanity, gross violations of human rights, and denial of religious freedom,” McGovern said.

In their opening remarks, the executives said that their companies were committed to human rights as per the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address, and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations.

The executives also said human rights were core to their values with respect to operations, supply chains, business relationships, and products, but they did not specifically discuss China’s abuses against the Uyghurs in the XUAR or the accusations of genocide.

“Our sponsorship of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing does not negate or undermine our commitment or respect for human rights or the activities we have taken for over a decade to prevent the risk of human rights violations throughout the world,” said Steven Rodgers, Intel’s executive vice president and general counsel.

Intel does not use any labor or sourced goods from the XUAR, he said.

“Our sponsorship of the Olympics is not an endorsement of any specific host country or an acceptance of every activity that may occur within any specific country, Rodgers said.

No say in site selection

The executives said that their focus was to provide support for Olympic athletes and that their companies had no say over where the Olympic Games should be held — a decision that is made solely by the IOC.

“We don’t have a role in site selection, so I don’t believe that we would be in a position to tell the IOC to move the Games,” said Sean Mulvaney, senior director of global government relations and public policy at Procter & Gamble.

When McGovern asked if the companies would consider keeping their CEOs from attending the Beijing Olympics and pulling advertising from the Winter Games, most said they had not yet made any decisions.

“Our focus is twofold — sponsoring and supporting the athletes and abetting human rights in the lifecycle of these Games,” said Paul Lalli, global vice president for human rights at the Coca-Cola Company.

The beverage maker has two bottling operations in China, including one in the XUAR.

David Holyoke, head of Olympics and Paralympics partnership at Airbnb, said that his company did not have plans for a traditional large-scale global marketing campaign for the Beijing Games.

“Our focus will be on empowering the athletes and the sponsorship of the Olympics, Paralympics, and refugee teams, and any programs will be local to the China market,” he said.

When McGovern asked the corporate sponsors if they were willing to pressure the IOC to relocate the games or delay them in an effort to make China stop its abuses in the XUAR, only Rodgers of Intel answered affirmatively.

Rep. Chris Smith asked the executives whether the Beijing Games should be moved to another country, but they said that as sponsors they did not have a role in that decision.

“As long as the governments allow the athletes to attend the Games, we at Visa will be there to support and sponsor them,” said Andrea Fairchild, senior vice president of global sponsorship strategy at Visa.

McGovern said that he attributed the companies’ failure to discuss what is happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as attempts to prevent a backlash from China.

But the executives later said that they had not received any threats by China to cut off their company’s commercial activities there if they spoke out on the Uyghur issue.

‘Real beef is with the IOC’

Senator Angus King pointed out that the IOC, not the five companies, should be the one providing testimony to the commission.

“It strikes me that we have the wrong set of witnesses here today — that out real beef is with the IOC in terms of how the decision [to give Beijing the 2022 Winter Games] was made and whether the decision is being under review as it should be.”

Senator Tom Cotton, who called the hearing “pathetic and disgraceful,” accused the executives of not speaking out on what he called the “Beijing Genocide Olympics” because they were afraid of repercussions from China.

“It’s clear to me that every one of you was sent here probably with directions directly from your CEOs and your boards not to say a single cross word about the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “For that matter, I think that most of you could be spouting talking points of the Chinese Communist Party.”

When Cotton asked the executives if they agreed with declarations by the Trump and Biden administrations that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, most said it was the responsibility of the government to make that determination.

“Under questioning from Senator Merkley, Rep. McGovern, and Rep. Chris Smith, every single one of you refuse to say a single word, by all appearances, that will cost you one bit of market share inside mainland China,” he said.

The hearing came the same day that the House of Representatives introduced an amendment on a diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics over allegations that China is committing genocide in the XUAR.

Rep. Michael Waltz submitted the proposed amendment, cosponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski, to the State Department’s annual funding bill that is under consideration by the House Appropriations Committee, ABC News reported.

“It would have a significant impact on the United States sending an official delegation” to the Beijing Olympics in February 2022, Waltz was quoted as saying.

Waltz plans to introduce a similar proposal to add to the annual defense policy bill that would cancel the Pentagon’s contracts with U.S. companies that sponsor the Beijing Games, the report said.

U.S.-based Campaign for Uyghurs, a Uyghur rights advocacy group, said it was deeply disappointed by the executives statement’s during the hearing.

“It is shameful to witness those company representatives actively choose their profits, their market shares, over their freedom of speech, their consciences, and the lives of Uyghurs in East Turkistan,” said Rushan Abbas, the organizations executive director, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for the XUAR.

“The entire hearing was clouded by the weight that the Chinese economy carried over these companies,” she said. “It was clear from each of their answers that they were unwilling to take any stance on this issue because they fear losing access to their markets in China.”