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Human Rights Council Holds Quadrennial Panel Discussion on Promoting Human Rights Through Sport and the Olympic Ideal

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7 July 2021

MORNING

7 July 2021

Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner on her Oral Update on Myanmar, Hears Presentation of Report on the Ninth Session of the Forum of Business and Human Rights

The Human Rights Council this morning held its quadrennial panel discussion on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal. It also concluded its interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her oral update on Myanmar, and heard the presentation of a report by the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the ninth session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights.

Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled that the Olympic ideal was anchored in human rights: it embodied fairness, non-discrimination, respect and equal opportunities for all. Sport promoted human rights values, as they reached billions, including young people. This was a very timely discussion as the word explored the potential of sport and the unique opportunities it offered to promote human rights for all in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a context of striking inequalities and uncertain recovery. Sport could also be a unique tool for the inclusion of youth in situations of vulnerability, including migrants and refugees.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, stated that in only 16 days, when the athletes from 205 National Olympic Committees and the International Olympic Committee Refugee Olympic Team finally came together for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, they would be sending a powerful message to the world: a message of peace and solidarity. At the Olympic Games, all were equal, everybody respected the same rules. This universality and inclusiveness defined the Olympic Games, requiring the Olympic Committee to be politically neutral.

Toshiro Muto, Chief Executive Officer of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, stated that after the one-year postponement due to COVID-19, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games would be starting on 23 July. The three basic concepts were "Achieving Personal Best", "Unity in Diversity" and "Connecting to tomorrow”. The message of "Unity in Diversity" connected all despite their differences: games should represent a place where people recognised each other's diversity and aimed for a world of solidarity.

Elizaveta Kunstmann, member of the Russian National Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team and Honoured Master of Sports, explained that she had been hit by a train as a child, leaving her without both legs. She had concentrated on sports, becoming a highly successful sitting volleyball athlete both at national and international levels. The Russian Paralympic Committee was working to involve persons with disabilities in physical education and sport, paying particular attention to children.

Kathrine Switzer, athlete, author, activist and Board Chair of 261 Fearless, Inc., said she was 74 years old and a long-distance runner. She had been running for 62 years, and running had given her nearly everything that was important in her life. In the last 50 years, running had created a human rights revolution of empowerment, good health and social justice. They must make sure that boys and girls were raised with equal opportunities of education, respect, and sports.

Jenny Oklikah, Chief Executive of the non-governmental organization “Fight for Peace”, said it had been founded in Maré, a favela in Rio, in 2000. The founder, Luke Dowdney, had found that the only way that he could engage young people that were involved in drugs and crime was actually through boxing and martial arts. Fight for Peace’s London Academy had been opened in 2007 using the same methodology. Fight for Peace believed that the choices young people made were very much based on how they saw themselves, their relationships with other people and how they saw their own futures.

Sofia Bekatorou, Olympic gold and bronze medallist in sailing (2004 and 2008 Summer Olympic Games), explaining how sport and the motivation to race had helped her get through a spine accident, the death of her sister from brain cancer and the death of her mother, said this year she had revealed that 22 years ago she had been raped by the former vice president of the Hellenic Sailing Federation during the Olympic qualifier for Sydney. She had decided that she had to fight against power abuse even if that meant a long time spent in courts.

Speakers highlighted that last year had been extremely challenging for many people around the world - now, it was time to heal. Humans were stronger together, and the Olympic ideal of equality in sport could serve as a model example for building forward better. At the same time, while fully acknowledging the positive role that sport was playing in promoting human rights worldwide, speakers noted that it was vital to promote and protect its integrity against negative practices, such as violence and hooliganism, doping, political exploitation, corruption and manipulation. Some speakers, turning their attention to the upcoming Olympics in Japan, said planned measures were not sufficient to prevent infections and they were discriminatory, in violation of the Olympic Charter principles. Drawing attention to the 2022 Beijing Olympics, they urged companies not to look the other way when considering abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and residents of Hong Kong, including abuses against children.

Speaking were Greece on behalf of a group of countries, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Cameroon on behalf of the Group of African States, Japan, Armenia, China, Russian Federation, Malaysia, Qatar, Botswana, UN Women, United Nations Population Fund, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Cuba, Kenya, Venezuela, Israel, Indonesia, Bahrain, Egypt, Nepal, and South Africa.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Human Rights Now, Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l’homme, Ingenieurs du Monde, iuventum e.V., and Geo Expertise Association.

The Council then concluded the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on her oral update on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

In the ensuing dialogue, speakers condemned violent attacks in Myanmar against peaceful protesters with impunity and the systematic destruction of people’s legal protection. Over 5,000 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced, including lawyers, who were intimidated and harassed, even in courtrooms. Courts were subordinated to military power - no possibility existed for a fair trial under military rule. Severe Internet restrictions were imposed by the military and almost 100 journalists had been arrested by security forces. Speakers called on the Council to encourage States to impose sanctions targeting top military leaders and military-owned companies that provided direct revenue for the military regime.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she had engaged closely with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the past month and had been encouraged by the Five-Point Consensus agreed. Unfortunately, the Myanmar military leadership had shown little sign of abiding by it. It was time for the Association to appoint a special envoy or team to get some kind of political dialogue underway. She encouraged the Association to engage with the democratic leadership and civil society, not just the military.

Donors should find ways to give assistance through civil society. Civil society must be involved in the political dialogue, along with the democratic leadership. On the situation of the Rohingyas, Ms. Bachelet said there was an urgent need to ensure humanitarian access, and that assistance reach them throughout the country as well as across the border. Humanitarian aid must not be instrumentalised by the military.

The following civil society organizations took the floor: International Bar Association, International Commission of Jurists, CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Amnesty International, Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada, and Support Centre for Food Development (SCFD).

The Council then heard a presentation of a report by the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the ninth session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights, held from 16 to 18 November 2020.

Surya Deva, Member of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, stated that the Forum on Business and Human Rights was the largest international gathering of stakeholders from every industry. In 2020 it had been held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic under the theme of preventing business human rights abuses as the key to the sustainable future of the planet. The Forum had considered how States, businesses, and the investment communities could respond to the pandemic while respecting human rights. The participants had focused on specific issues, such as the connection between the climate crisis and business and human rights; the alignment between the business and human rights agenda and the anti-corruption agenda; and the challenges and ways forward to prevent and address xenophobia and racism. The Forum unsurprisingly had acknowledged the devastating consequences of the pandemic, particularly for marginalised communities.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-seventh regular session can be found here.

The Human Rights Council will next meet this afternoon at 3 p.m. to hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Keynote Statements

NADA AL-NASHIF, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Olympic ideal was anchored in human rights: it embodied fairness, non-discrimination, respect and equal opportunities for all. Sport promoted human rights values, as they reached billions, including young people. So, this was a very timely discussion as the word explored the potential of sport and the unique opportunities it offered to promote human rights for all in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a context of striking inequalities and uncertain recovery. Sport presented a unique opportunity to promote young people’s right to participation, for example in sport governance and in decision-making related to sports from the local to the national, regional and international levels. Non-discrimination included equal access to sports and sporting facilities for all young people, without distinction. Sport could also be a unique tool for the inclusion of youth in situations of vulnerability, including migrants and refugees.

At the same time, sport and sporting events had the potential to lead to human rights violations or to exacerbate discrimination, sexual and other forms of abuse and exploitation, forced evictions, poor labour conditions, as well as violence against journalists and peaceful protestors, including amongst youth. It was therefore essential to more consistently and deeply embed human rights considerations into the organization and management of sport, and of sporting events, particularly ‘mega’ sporting events. In recent years, the Office of the High Commissioner had increasingly engaged on human rights opportunities and challenges related to sport. For instance, the Office had collaborated with civil society, sports’ governing bodies, trade unions, sponsors, the International Labour Organization, Governments, and others to establish the Centre for Sport and Human Rights in 2018.

THOMAS BACH, President of the International Olympic Committee, stated that in only 16 days, when the athletes from 205 National Olympic Committees and the International Olympic Committee Refugee Olympic Team finally came together for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, they would be sending a powerful message to the world: a message of peace and solidarity. The Olympic mission was about these values and went hand-in-hand with human rights, especially the most fundamental of human rights: peace. At the Olympic Games, all people were equal regardless of their race, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, social status, religion, or political belief. This principle of non-discrimination allowed sport to promote peace and understanding among all people. They could only achieve this peace mission through solidarity. What the coronavirus pandemic had taught all the hard way was that more solidarity was needed. More solidarity within societies and more solidarity among societies. At the Olympic Games, all were equal, everybody respected the same rules. This universality and inclusiveness defined the Olympic Games, requiring the Olympic Committee to be politically neutral.

Non-discrimination and political neutrality were therefore at the heart of the Olympic approach to human rights as well. Making the world a better place required action and change, which always started with oneself. This applied also to human rights. For the Olympic Movement, this applied in particular with regards to the Olympic Games. As a non-governmental organization, the Olympic Committee had neither the mandate, nor the capability, to change laws of sovereign countries. The Movement could not solve human rights issues which generations of politicians had been unable to solve. The Committee aligned its strategies on sustainability, gender equality and inclusion with human rights standards, becoming a carbon-neutral organization and committed to becoming climate-positive by 2024. The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would achieve gender-balance for the first time in history with almost 49 per cent women participating. If politics did not respect this mission, the Olympic Games would become as divisive as so many other areas of society today.

TOSHIRO MUTO, Chief Executive Officer of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, stated that after the one-year postponement due to COVID-19, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games would be starting on 23 July. The three basic concepts were "Achieving Personal Best", "Unity in Diversity" and "Connecting to tomorrow”. Today, Mr. Muto said he would focus on “Unity in Diversity” as it was in line with the theme of this panel discussion. The message of "Unity in Diversity" connected everyone despite their differences: games should represent a place where people recognised each other's diversity and aimed for a world of solidarity. Sports provided a stage for young people to shine globally and had to reflect the realities of young people. For the first time, in Tokyo, new sports such as three by three basketball, sport climbing, skateboarding, Cycling BMX, and surfing would be Olympic sports, meaning more young people than ever, regardless of their social and economic background, would have the chance to be a star on the world stage.

The Paralympic Games played a key role in “Unity in Diversity”, with rules and equipment developed for physically limited athletes. However, with further technological development, para-sports in Japan were now being considered as a sport that could be enjoyed by all people, regardless of age, gender, sporting ability, or disability. In addition, since 2015, the Japanese Government had been actively promoting the use of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in education for fostering a norm awareness through sports and deepening children's understanding of international and intercultural issues, coexistence, and sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic was not over yet, Mr. Muto said, adding that the Organising Committee was doing its best to ensure that the Tokyo 2020 Games were safe and secure for everyone by taking full and comprehensive countermeasures. Through the successful hosting of the Tokyo 2020 Games, he hoped to show the world that people had the right to live healthier and happier lives, even in difficult circumstances.

Statements by the Panellists

ELIZAVETA KUNSTMANN, member of the Russian National Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team and Honoured Master of Sports, explained that she was hit by a train as a child, leaving her without both legs. In an instant, she had lost her school, walks in the yard with her friends, and all activity in general - she had needed something to do, and sport had been the obvious solution. She had become a highly successful sitting volleyball athlete both at national and international levels. She did not think of what had happened to her as a tragedy, disaster or catastrophe. She treated it philosophically - what had happened could not be changed. She could not stand being treated solely as an invalid, being an ordinary person, with the most ordinary problems, worries, dreams and interests. She really wanted Russia to host as many major competitions as possible. The Russian Paralympic Committee was working to involve persons with disabilities in physical education and sport, paying particular attention to children.

KATHRINE SWITZER, athlete, author, activist and Board Chair of 261 Fearless, Inc., said she was 74 years old and a long-distance runner. She had been running for 62 years, and running had given her nearly everything that was important in her life. In the last 50 years, running had created a human rights revolution of empowerment, good health, and social justice. There were five key areas to create a social revolution and the first began right now: all must make sure that boys and girls were raised with equal opportunities of education, respect and sports. In the nearly 3,000-year history of the Olympic Games, the focus had been on men’s abilities in speed, strength, and power, whereas women’s unique abilities were related to endurance, stamina, flexibility, and balance. For example, it would be great if the Olympics had a 24-hour run or a six-day run where half of the team was comprised of men and half of women.

JENNY OKLIKAH, Chief Executive of the non-governmental organization “Fight for Peace”, said the organization had been founded in Maré, a favela in Rio, in 2000. The founder, Luke Dowdney, had found that the only way that he could engage young people that were involved in drugs and crime was actually through boxing and martial arts. Fight for Peace’s London Academy had been opened in 2007 using the same methodology. Fight for Peace believed that the choices young people made were very much based on how they saw themselves, their relationships with other people and how they saw their own futures. Working in communities affected by issues concerning inequality, and social issues, including violence, across the world, Fight for Peace used the power of sport to promote human rights, as well as a public health model to reduce violence where conventional strategies did not work.

SOFIA BEKATOROU, Olympic gold and bronze medallist in sailing, explaining how sport and the motivation to race had helped her get through a spine accident, the death of her sister from brain cancer and the death of her mother, said this year she had revealed that 22 years ago she had been raped by the former vice president of the Hellenic Sailing Federation during the Olympic qualifier for Sydney. It was a trauma she had hidden unconsciously pretty well for years to survive mentally and psychologically. But she had decided that she had to fight against power abuse even if that meant a long time spent in courts. This move had created a butterfly effect, revealing similar crimes which finally led to the creation of the Greek #MeToo movement, which sparked an unprecedented public debate about sex violence, human rights, and gender equality. The Olympic values she had served practically all her life were giving her now the opportunity to make a real difference for her country and the world defending human rights, gender equality and reducing all kinds of violence.

Discussion

Speakers highlighted that last year had been extremely challenging for many people around the world - now, it was time to heal. Humans were stronger together, and the Olympic ideal of equality in sport could serve as a model example for building forward better. At the same time, while fully acknowledging the positive role that sport was playing in promoting human rights worldwide, speakers noted that it was vital to promote and protect its integrity against negative practices, such as violence and hooliganism, doping, political exploitation, corruption and manipulation. Speakers were extremely concerned about the continued application of regulations that required female athletes to reduce naturally elevated levels of testosterone to compete internationally in the female category at distances between 400m and a mile - this was discriminatory against women with intersex variations, reinforced harmful gender stereotypes, and had the same effect as apartheid. It was difficult to overstate the positive uniting role of the international sporting movement, despite certain countries politicising it and interfering in the activities of international sporting bodies.

Turning their attention to the upcoming Olympic Games in Japan, speakers said planned measures were not sufficient to prevent infections and they were discriminatory, in violation of the principles of the Olympic Charter. Tokyo 2020 was weirdly expensive, they said. What was more, organising Olympic Games under the nuclear state of emergency, which had been continuously in force since 2011, was abnormal. Several speakers touted national programmes to foster inclusivity in sports and promote gender equality. They underlined with regret that in many countries, girls were still not allowed to participate and compete in international events. These girls were actively persecuted and discriminated against for their willingness to participate in various sports. Some speakers urged those present to uphold the independence and neutrality of the International Olympic Committee. Others pointed out that corporate sponsors presented themselves as human rights defenders, and yet ignored human rights violations taking place in countries that hosted the Olympics. Drawing attention to the 2022 Beijing Olympics, they urged companies not to look the other way when considering abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and residents of Hong Kong, including abuses against children.

Concluding Remarks

ELIZAVETA KUNSTMANN, member of the Russian National Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team and Honoured Master of Sports, thanked the United Nations for organising a panel on this important topic.

KATHRINE SWITZER, athlete, author, activist and Board Chair of 261 Fearless, Inc., noted that she did not talk about changing the whole world, just about supporting young people - talent was everywhere and they should encourage it. Let talented young people fearlessly envision success.

JENNY OKLIKAH, Chief Executive of the non-governmental organization “Fight for Peace”, stated that it was an honour to be among such courageous panel speakers, welcoming the positioning of sport within a human rights context and bringing attention to racism and misogyny. It was important to invest in programmes to promote change through a collective impact approach with an objective to removing systemic discrimination.

SOFIA BEKATOROU, Olympic gold and bronze medallist in sailing, said all speakers had one thing in common: the will to help. Sports was a great platform for this, and Olympians could be great messengers to promote human rights and address poverty.

Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner on her Oral Update on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar

The interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her oral update on the situation of human rights in Myanmar started on 6 July and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Speakers condemned violent attacks against peaceful protesters with impunity in Myanmar, and the systematic destruction of peoples’ legal protection. Over 5,000 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced, including lawyers who were intimidated and harassed, even in courtrooms. Courts were subordinated to military power - no possibility existed for a fair trial under military rule. Severe Internet restrictions had been imposed by the military and almost 100 journalists had been arrested by security forces. Speakers called on the Council to encourage States to impose sanctions targeting top military leaders and military-owned companies that provided direct revenue for the military regime. Myanmar was experiencing a human rights catastrophe of staggering scale: the people of Myanmar could not wait for diplomatic efforts to bear fruit. Minority groups were specifically targeted by the military and displaced by military campaigns, and the Rohingya were forced to live in apartheid conditions.

Concluding Remarks

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she had engaged closely with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the past month and had been encouraged by the Five-Point Consensus agreed. Unfortunately, the Myanmar military leadership had shown little sign of abiding by it. It was also time for the Association to appoint a special envoy or team to get some kind of political dialogue underway. She encouraged the Association to engage with the democratic leadership and civil society, not just the military. So far, the Association had been involved more on humanitarian issues, but they should also address the human rights dimension as well. The Association could consider deploying a form of monitoring presence on the ground. The High Commissioner said her Office stood ready to support the Association. Any political dialogue required the release of political prisoners and the protection of human rights defenders.

Donors should find ways to give assistance through civil society. Civil society must be involved in the political dialogue, along with the democratic leadership. Concerning journalists, at least 93 journalists had been arrested since February and at least 44 remained in detention, including foreign correspondents. Eight media outlets had had their licenses revoked. Many journalists had sought protection outside of the country. In order to support the human rights agenda, her Office was supporting other United Nations agencies with information sharing even though it did not have a presence on the ground. Space for engagement remained limited.

On the situation of the Rohingyas, Ms. Bachelet said there was an urgent need to ensure humanitarian access, and that assistance reach them throughout the country as well as across the border. Humanitarian aid must not be instrumentalised by the military. Noting that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had signalled its willingness to play a coordinating role, she said it should be upheld. It was important to ensure that aid was delivered to civil society structures. The Rohingya community still suffered from violence, harassment, and a lack of freedom of movement. Expressing worry at the prospect of the closure of internally displaced camps in Rakhine state, she said refugees could hardly return to their homes when the root causes of their displacement were not being addressed, in particular those pertaining to citizenship. As the situation became more protracted, the High Commissioner acknowledged the pressure on Bangladesh in hosting the refugees from Myanmar and asked them for further patience.

Presentation of Report by the Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises

Report

The Council has before it the report (A/HRC/47/50) by the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the 9th session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights held from 16-18 November 2020.

Presentation of the Report

SURYA DEVA, member of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprise, stated that the Forum on Business and Human Rights was the largest international gathering of stakeholders from every industry. In 2020 it was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic under the theme of preventing business human rights abuses as the key to sustainable future of the planet. The Forum had considered how States, businesses, and the investment communities could respond to the pandemic while respecting human rights. Some 4,000 participants had come from a wide range of backgrounds, participating in nearly 30 thematic sessions. They had focused on specific issues, such as the connection between the climate crisis and business and human rights; the alignment between the business and human rights agenda and the anti-corruption agenda; and the challenges and way forward to prevent and address xenophobia and racism. The Forum unsurprisingly acknowledged the devastating consequences of the pandemic, particularly for marginalised communities.

The Forum agreed that technology could play a vital role in managing public health, but its use also presented challenges to human rights. The Guiding Principles were a key tool to prevent and remediate negative impacts on human rights. The Forum provided a unique platform to exchange positive examples of legislation and policy between States, acknowledging the recent move by some countries towards binding laws and an international instrument on business and human rights. A dedicated session had focused on how international investment agreements could be aligned with State human rights obligations. The final report on the Forum would be presented in October 2021. Several sessions had touched on effective corporate responsibility, especially in transnational dimensions. The Guiding Principles were a guidepost in times of multiple crises: COVID-19, climate, and racism and inequality had shown the fragility of systems that did not put people and the planet in the centre. Due to COVID-19, the next Forum would also be held virtually with the theme on setting out an ambitious roadmap for the next decade.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/07/la-haute-commissaire-adjointe-aux-droits-de-lhomme-recommande

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