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Towards a Human Rights Legacy for Sporting Events

24 Apr 2018
By Professor Susan Harris Rimmer

As the sun sets on the Glitter Strip, we can begin to evaluate the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. After a series of disgraceful practices at previous sporting events, human rights violations must be taken seriously as a risk to the success of these events.

About Human Rights and Mega-Sporting Events

Mega-sporting events (MSEs) should be able to provide evidence of a human rights legacy: job creation, urban regeneration, new public housing, increased sports participation, and improved attitudes towards people with disabilities.  However, the evidence that sporting events are in themselves intrinsically human rights promoting or apolitical events does not bear up to scrutiny.

Hosting a MSE makes the host face increased human rights scrutiny on areas of existing weakness (in Australia’s case, refugee policy, indigenous rights, rights of public assembly). For example, the 1986 Games were boycotted by many nations due to Prime Minister Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa

Sport itself is the subject of international human rights law. The International Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Federation both now have human rights regulation in their host city manuals and bid processes that will start to kick in during the next decade.

If Australia wishes to host more MSEs, this is an area of practice that needs rigour and investment.

About the Games

Gold Coast 2018 (GC2018) was the largest sporting event staged in Australia this decade. More than 6,600 athletes and team officials from 70 Commonwealth nations and territories came to Queensland. They were joined by in excess of 3,000 international media, 15,000 volunteers, a security force of 10,000 and over 1.5 million spectators, 670,000 from overseas.  There was a broadcast audience of around 1.5 billion. How should we evaluate the human rights legacy of the Commonwealth Games, beyond the ‘inspiration’ factor?

The good news

There were some visible moments of human rights triumphs during these Games:

  • The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation (GOLDOC) did some ground-breaking work on a creating a meaningful human rights policy
  • GOLDOC took part in an Australian-first benchmarking program designed to measure the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) people within Australian sport.
  • The GC2018 Games can make claims proudly about the first major sporting event in history to have equal events and medal chances for men and women. This brought more focus on gender equality issues for the delegations. It also brought into sharp relief the highly challenging & complex questions around transgender and Intersex athletes competing, where due process and dignity are paramount concerns.
  • Para athletes participating in mainstream events set a precedent at these Games, sparking a movement to reform the Olympics in the same manner. An exemplary moment was Kurt Fearnley’s speech after winning a silver medal, on bringing the topic of the rights of people living with disabilities into our daily lives: “Inclusion’s working, we’re nailing this… Let’s take the conversation further”
  • The Reconciliation Action Plan is an Australian first for a MSE.  GOLDOC established the Yugambeh Elders Advisory Group and the Indigenous Working Group.
  • The London Olympics took strides, but GC2018 can take pride in its Sustainable Procurement Policy.
  • GOLDOC worked with UNICEF to create a Safe-Guarding Children policy.
  • Queensland Tourism and the Gold Coast City Council created an Accessible Tourism website and resources.

The bad news

There were more questionable moments, from the Mayor of the Gold Coast opening the games whilst under an active corruption investigation, sexual assault charges against a senior delegation official who then left the country, and an extraordinary security presence despite no particular threat that raised civil liberties concerns.

Generally speaking, Australia should not use MSEs as an opportunity to trial new security measures or experiment with counter-terrorism techniques, and stop the overly securitised nature of these events. Outside the netball stadium, I counted double the number of police/army uniforms to punters.

The arrest of Stolen Wealth protestors, including youth detainee Dylan Voller, also showed the darker side of the history of the Games. The Commonwealth Games were never just about sport, but also about the influence of the British Empire. The MSEs held in Australia have always been the site of indigenous protest.

Another site of public contention and comment during the Games was the absconding of some athletes from the Village, possibly with the view of claiming asylum. It is a regular feature of MSEs in developed countries that athletes may make refugee claims, as is their right under international law.  The treatment of these people after their visas expire will be another moment of international judgment.

Behind the scenes, the GC2018 made history in its human rights framework, but there is still so much further to go for future Games. What if the most lasting legacy of GC2018 was the normative infrastructure it leaves for future hosts? How will we know if the local community are better off in the long-term and by whose measures?

A patchwork of accountability

The Commonwealth Games are bound by the Commonwealth Charter, which includes certain broad human rights guarantees and aspirations. GOLDOC was bound by laws of the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Queensland. GOLDOC voluntarily accepted the UN Guiding Principles framework (add a link)

The Games highlighted the deep and urgent need for the Queensland Government to honour its election promise to pass a Human Rights Act this term. Australia has no comprehensive human rights protections at either federal or state level, but has some institutional protection of rights and anti-discrimination measures; a “patchwork”.

The way forward

The missing link in the protection of human rights at MSEs is still the right to a remedy if rights are infringed. Will the assault of an athlete on film receive impunity?

Some of the human rights issues that arise from hosting the Games cannot be resolved by the host alone, due to the ‘phoenix’ nature of the organising bodies.The onus falls on the Commonwealth Games Federation, along with the Commonwealth Secretariat to bolster some aspects of rights protection, such as monitoring of supply chains between Games, or providing an audited list of suppliers in Commonwealth countries, and by providing model policies.  But they should go further and create a Trust Fund for people affected adversely by these events who cannot gain a remedy in the host nation.

The Commonwealth Games should encourage the use of partnerships with national and local integrity mechanisms (national human rights institutions, ombudsman, civil society organisations, welfare providers) as well as international actors who can bring expertise but also add a degree of legitimacy to the Games human rights reputation.

Improved governance and modelling of human rights protection, education and promotion can itself be a Games Legacy. The Commonwealth Games should aim for sporting excellence but also seek to use the Games to strengthen human rights protection in the host nation and celebrate progress towards achieving better human right standards in all Commonwealth members. It is an opportunity to live the Charter.

Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer is an Australian Research Council future fellow in Griffith Law School, and an adjunct reader in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons licence and may be republished with attribution.