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Opening Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Panel on Promoting awareness, understanding and the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through sport and the Olympic ideal

Human Rights Council
19th session


High Level and Interactive Panel discussion to highlight, examine and suggest ways in which sport and major sporting events in particular Olympic and Paralympic games, can be used to promote awareness, and understanding of the Universal declaration of human rights and the application of the principles enshrined therein

 Geneva, 27 February 2012

Madam President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to open this high level panel discussion to highlight, examine and suggest ways in which sport and major sporting events, in particular the Olympic and Paralympic Games, can be used to promote awareness, understanding and the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sport has been acknowledged as a vehicle for peace and human development in several key UN documents and declarations, in particular, the 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration, the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and the 2010 MDG High-level Meeting Outcome Document, whereby Heads of State and Government “recognize that sport, as a tool for education, development and peace, can promote cooperation, solidarity, tolerance, understanding, social inclusion and health at the local, national and international levels.” However, it is surprising to note how little interaction there has been so far between the human rights movement, mechanisms and institutions and the world of sports.

The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing has analyzed the positive and negative legacy of hosting the Olympic Games and the FIFA Football World Cup , and the Human Rights Council has adopted a Resolution entitled “A world of sports free from racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” In this resolution, the Council urged States to “prevent, combat and address all manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in the context of sporting events” .

It is evident that both sport and human rights share many fundamental values and objectives. Not only does the Olympic Charter set out that “The practice of sport is a human right”; it also stipulates that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. This rhymes perfectly with article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

The Olympic Charter furthermore states that “that every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind…”. Several of the core international human rights treaties also recognize the right to participate in sport and leisure, including for women and persons with disabilities .

Practicing sports contributes greatly to the development and empowerment of human beings, perhaps most of all to that of children. It can build self-confidence, develop social, educational and physical skills and learn respect for key human rights principles such as non-discrimination, equality, accountability and participation.

Sport is also a tremendous public health instrument. The World Health Organization has engaged with the sporting world to promote a healthy lifestyle and to fight tobacco use. Sport is an exceptional platform to create greater public awareness of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Furthermore, sport has proved historically to be a powerful tool for the empowerment of social or marginalized groups, such as girls and women, minorities, indigenous, persons with disabilities. Today it is a truly universal activity which has succeeded to involve the full diversity of humankind.

In many countries struggling with poverty or conflict, sport has assisted greatly in building development and peace. I wish to refer to the demobilization process of child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia where children from opposing factions were integrated in rehabilitation centers and placed in mixed football teams involved in a competitive league. In this regard I also wish to welcome the work undertaken by the Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace.

In view of the unique media attention attracted, Olympic and Paralympic Games have an enormous potential to promote awareness and understanding of human rights. They offer a significant opportunity to promote peace through the Olympic Truce and reinforce international solidarity among people. Sports and human rights can be mutually reinforcing and the International Olympic Committee has the potential to be a unique vector to convey shared values. Therefore, I would like to encourage the host organizers of the forthcoming Olympic Games in the cities of London and Rio de Jainero and on the sites of Sotchi in Russia and PyeongChang in the Republic of Korea to pay special attention to the promotion of human rights, for instance through varied promotional activities and campaigns. In view of the impact of such mega-events, it is essential that human rights implications be duly considered at all stages and by all actors involved.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Like any social activity, sport can also carry potentially negative side effects. Almost a decade ago the General Assembly acknowledged with concern “the dangers faced by sportsmen and sportswomen, in particular young athletes, including, inter alia, child labor, violence, doping, early specialization, over-training and exploitative forms of commercialization, as well as less visible threats and deprivations, such as the premature severance of family bonds and the loss of sporting, social and cultural ties” .

States and sport-related institutions need to be aware of human rights standards, and respect these in sporting rules, practices and policies. Indeed, amateur as well as professional athletes are full-fledged rights holders and measures should be taken to prevent sport becoming a source of human rights violations.

I wish to welcome in this regard measures taken by sport authorities to protect the rights of athletes, such as the International Olympic Committee’s 2007 consensus statement on sexual harassment and abuse in sport.

The International Olympic Committee must assume the moral leadership to ensure that human rights norms are fully integrated and respected in the sporting world. I also call on all international human rights mechanisms, especially the relevant Special Procedures mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and the human rights treaty bodies, to look carefully and systematically at the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of sports. Stronger expert analysis can undoubtedly assist the sporting world to adequately promote and protect human rights.

In closing, I wish the best to the organizers of future Olympic Games and other sport events and I look forward to see how these events will promote awareness and understanding of human rights.

Thank you.

See A/HRC/13/20.

See A/HRC/RES/13/27.

CEDAW and CRPD reefer to the right to participate in sport; CRC and CESCR to exercise the right to leisure.

See A/RES/58/5-2003