Commentary on Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy
05 Feb 2021
Author - Alison Biscoe
Centre for Sport and Human Rights
In 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) commissioned Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Rachel Davis, Vice-President of the non-profit business and human rights organisation Shift, to develop recommendations for the IOC’s planned human rights strategy. Their recommendations were submitted in March 2020 and in December the IOC published the much-anticipated report, titled Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy.
This ambitious and comprehensive document not only puts forward a road map for the IOC’s own human rights journey, but will likely be studied closely by other international federations as they develop their own commitments. The report therefore has the potential to influence the sport sector as a whole, and warrants careful scrutiny and consideration.
The report has been welcomed by stakeholders involved in discussions on sport and human rights, and its recommendations will surely have a positive impact for many involved in sport, provided they are adopted and implemented. Our hope is that this happens swiftly, as timing may never be as urgent as it is now.
A year from today, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing are scheduled to begin. This summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo and Beijing 2022 are important opportunities for the IOC to demonstrate its commitment to implementing these recommendations. Human rights groups have raised strong concerns regarding the practice of corporal punishment in sport in Japan (the practice of “Taibatsu”), as well as alarm over widespread human rights abuses in China. In a recent letter to the IOC, Human Rights Watch details extensive concerns regarding the Games in China, including lack of media freedom and concerns over forced labour in supply chains, and urging it to immediately conduct a detailed human rights risk assessment. Tackling these concerns, in line with the report’s recommendations, is an opportunity for the IOC to unequivocally demonstrate its commitment to respecting human rights abuses and build essential credibility with key stakeholders.
But what are some of the critical recommendations the IOC report is making and what are the challenges involved in effective implementation? How might other actors most effectively offer support? These issues are discussed below, alongside relevant work already being undertaken by the Centre for Sport and Human Rights (CSHR).
Recommendation 1: Articulating the IOC’s human rights responsibilities
The report recommends that in order for the IOC to implement its responsibility to respect human rights, it must clearly articulate what its human rights responsibilities are. UN standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), make this clear: (a) its responsibility arises from its connection to human rights impacts and is not limited to impacts that it causes or contributes to; (b) risks should be prioritised by the severity or risks to people, and (c) internationally recognised human rights standards apply. The scope of responsibility is based on the existence of a connection to the harm and the nature of that connection, and as such, the IOC has a responsibility to use its leverage.
Once articulated, the report’s recommendations cover how to embed the IOC’s responsibility and commitment to human rights, including through amendments to the Olympic Charter, covering the role and mission of the IOC, its member National Olympic Committees and eventually, International Sport Federations (IFs). This work would be aided by the IOC’s nascent Human Rights Advisory Committee.
Its scope of responsibility set out, the report recommends the IOC elaborate on its responsibilities through a policy commitment to respect human rights, aided by its prospective Human Rights Advisory Committee and in consultation with external stakeholders. A thorough review of how this commitment is respected within all core documents should then follow. This includes importantly, the Code of Ethics, where commitment to human rights can be embedded into standards for good governance (e.g., into handling of conflicts of interest, eligibility of office holders, measures of accountability of members and officials, and enhancement of transparency).
In other words, by incorporating human rights into all its core governing documents, the IOC would ensure that all involved understand expectations, know how to raise concerns, and understand what consequences are likely to follow from any breach.
This recommendation is the critical first step the IOC, and all sport federations, must take to ensure respect for human rights. Of particular importance here are:
- Embedding respect for human rights into core documents: The statutes and codes of ethics of all sport federations are crucial documents and a meaningful commitment to human rights must be embedded into them. The recommendations also call for the IOC to integrate human rights into other key documents such as the Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance of the Olympic and Sports Movement and the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration. We would add to this list all Rules and Regulations governing the Olympic Movement as well as bidding requirements for hosting the Olympic Games, including Youth Olympic Games.
- Ensuring that the IOC’s human rights responsibility extends to all three spheres of influence: As the owner of the Olympic Games and the leader of the Olympic Movement, for its human rights commitment to be meaningful, it needs to cover all three of these areas. The same is true for global sport federations – in many cases federations are the guardians of their sport, be that at a national, regional or international level, and respect for human rights must be integrated throughout operations.
The critical link between good governance and effective implementation of human rights should also be stressed and CSHR guides such as Championing Human Rights in the Governance of Sports Bodies can be helpful in this context. To further support sport federations in their implementation of human rights commitments and policies, CSHR will be publishing in 2021 a template human rights policy informed through consultation with a number of international federations.
Recommendation 2: Embedding respect for human rights in the organisation
The report recommends that the IOC embeds human rights concerns more thoroughly into the structure and culture of the organisation. At a high level, this starts with translating human rights commitment meaningfully into the daily work of those within the organisation. Human rights should not be treated as an add-on, but as a central and coherent issue that flows through everything an organisation does. Integrating human rights commitments into core documents will support this.
More fundamentally, ensuring dedicated resourcing on human rights with support from senior management and the authority to make necessary decisions, is critical to ensuring human rights commitments are effectively implemented within any organisation. Furthermore, many organisations are working to integrate human rights issues into wider work on sustainability, for example. Linking these two areas more closely in practice is increasingly important, particularly as Local Organising Committees are more aware of their responsibilities in terms of sustainability and the IOC Sustainability Strategy already makes reference to key human rights areas including labour rights and sustainable sourcing. Furthermore, training and support are critical for the IOC and other sport federations to ensure staff are equipped to deal with human rights concerns. Understanding how respect for human rights is to be integrated into day-to-day functions of the organisation is crucial to properly meeting commitments.
Of particular importance here are:
- Integrating human rights within the organisation: The report recommends that the IOC appoints a senior Human Rights Lead to work with an independent Human Rights Advisory Committee. It encourages the Human Rights Lead to convene a cross-functional steering group from areas of the organisation including Sustainable Development, Ethics and Compliance and Legal among others, and to eventually fold in other areas of the organisation including work on gender and prevention of harassment and abuse in sport. This is important to ensure that the IOC’s human rights approach is mainstreamed throughout the organisation.
- Building confidence among staff: The report references discomfort among employees in engaging on human rights topics. Addressing this is important as all staff need to understand how the organisation’s human rights commitments connect to their work and that they have the training, tools and incentives to act on it. No sport federation can make a commitment and assume that staff will know how to implement it. This requires training and strong leadership from the top.
- Ensuring authority to make critical decisions: The recommendation for the Human Rights Lead to be a senior role within the IOC and to possibly have a seat on the Board of Directors is important. It gives this role the authority to make difficult and quick decisions – something which is crucial to an effective human rights approach. Equally important, it sends a strong signal that the IOC is serious about embedding its human rights commitment within the organisation at the highest levels.
Our own ongoing work at CSHR is addressing how human rights issues can impact on various functions within the world of sport including in governance, broadcasting, sponsorship, events, athletes’ rights, and safeguarding. These conversations and resulting tools and related actions can serve as a useful starting point in understanding how human rights intersect with different roles across sport federations and what different human rights risks issues and responses might look like for each department.
Recommendation 3: Identifying and addressing human rights risks
The report recommends that the IOC better identifies and addresses its human rights risks. The bulk of this work to date has been in relation to the Olympic Games, and notably with the Operational Requirements that were approved in 2018 – due to first take effect with Paris 2024. The report also highlights stakeholder engagement as a critical part of any human rights due diligence process, particularly in relation to athletes and athlete voice.
Human rights due diligence is critical to understanding and managing risk. This is particularly important over the next year as the IOC faces challenges in the lead up to Beijing 2022. Historically, the IOC has stressed that the Olympic Games are the exclusive responsibility of the host government and LOC, and that hosting an event in a certain country should not be connected with a country’s politics. The recommendations present an opportunity to review that stance, which no longer reflects the views of many key stakeholders who recognise that serious human rights abuses cannot be ignored under the auspices of political neutrality. This is equally true for those events taking place before the Operational Requirements take effect, including Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022. It also applies to all sport bodies and where they choose to host their main events and world championships. The importance of engaging with those who may be affected by the organisation’s policies or operations is an additional key recommendation in the report which reinforces the idea that all viewpoints must be taken into consideration to recognise the intersectionality of many human rights abuses. The UNGPs and the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standards are useful guides for how to conduct such processes, and were requirements in the bidding process for the FIFA 2026 World Cup.
Of particular relevance here are:
- Strengthening human rights due diligence, particularly for upcoming Games not bound by new Operational Requirements: Beijing 2022 and Senegal 2026 are two events where human rights risk assessments need to be carried out. In order for the IOC’s human rights strategy to have meaning, it must mitigate risks on the horizon.
- Leveraging partnerships: the IOC must support human rights due diligence in partnerships with sponsors, broadcasters, and procurement, as well as relationships with candidate and host cities, and other entities within the Olympic Movement. The IOC should conduct its own due diligence on potential and current partners as stipulated by the UNGPs, but should also be prepared to offer support and capacity to partners’ own human rights due diligence processes, for example with candidate cities that are expected to comply with human rights standards.
- Ensuring that affected groups inform due diligence: Those who are or could be impacted by activities of all three IOC areas of influence must be consulted through stakeholder engagement as part of a robust due diligence process. This is particularly true for athletes – the main stakeholder of the IOC.
A newly established CSHR working group brings together a range of stakeholders to discuss and take joint action on these issues. CSHR has conducted risk assessments for a number of upcoming major events, including upcoming Olympic events, and is therefore well-placed to support organisations seeking to identify and address their most salient risks. CSHR’s Games Time Risk Guide, is designed to support rapid risk assessment and mitigation as and when issues arise.
Recommendation 4: Tracking and communicating on progress
Monitoring is an essential part of human rights due diligence for any organisation – without it, any policies or commitments made are irrelevant. In order to know whether the IOC’s human rights efforts are effective, the report makes clear that further actions are needed to track its progress and communicate with stakeholders about its efforts. Communication around human rights is a cornerstone of stakeholder engagement. The IOC has the opportunity to set forth an engagement plan for Beijing 2022 as a matter of urgency, including an assessment of risks identified and plans to address these risks. We will soon know if they choose to undertake this challenge, and the Centre is well placed to assist them if they do.
Of particular relevance here are:
- Building capacity and dedicating resources to monitoring implementation: Human rights policies and commitments need to be matched with transparent monitoring and evaluation of their efficacy and impact.
- Strengthening communication around human rights: The IOC already does work that is directly linked to human rights, including through its sustainability function. That said, a more comprehensive assessment of risks to human rights is critically needed, particularly for upcoming events.
Recommendation 5: Strengthening the remedy ecosystem in sport
Finally, the report makes critically important recommendations relating to access to remedy for those whose rights have been adversely impacted. Remedy, as the third pillar of the UNGPs, is critical to effectively delivering on human rights commitments. It is often considered the hardest aspect of a human rights strategy to implement, making it crucial to get right. The report recommends that the IOC focusses on using its leverage to strengthen access to remedy within the broader sports ecosystem, noting that the IOC "is sitting at the apex of a patchwork of remedy" – i.e., there is no singular, clear route to remedy for affected people. This makes it difficult to understand how individuals can assert their rights and seek redress where harm has occurred. This is largely due to the fact that existing mechanisms in sport tend to be designed to tackle threats to the integrity of sport, not to address human rights violations, and therefore many are not fit-for-purpose. This is true not just for wider sport mechanisms, but also for the IOC’s own grievance mechanisms. Strengthening this ecosystem means the IOC must use its leverage and engage all relevant actors, including the CAS.
It is essential that all potentially affected stakeholders know how to access grievance mechanisms, and that there are clear and transparent processes throughout. Considerations should also be made for any protection or support that might be necessary to victims working through specific grievance processes.
Of particular relevance here are:
- Strengthening the remedy ecosystem across the Olympic Movement: The report notes that existing remedy options are not always available and where they are, can be difficult to access. As the owners of the Olympic Movement, the IOC has a critical role to play in strengthening remedy across all of sport
- Calling for additional remedy resources: Calling for additional resources, including a broader fund to support affected groups seeking justice, is a strongly welcomed recommendation. This is a critical component to ensuring affected people are supported.
- Creating a helpline and an Investigators Network: The report proposes this network and calls for it to be triggered by the IOC Human Rights Lead if needed. Given serious shortcomings regarding sport federations’ reporting and investigatory capacities, this is a highly welcomed recommendation.
The recommendations set out in the IOC human rights strategy report are critical and inevitably top-level. Many will require dedicated implementation plans – such as how the IOC will seek to mitigate human rights risks in relation to Beijing 2022. While a commitment to implementing these recommendations will require both a shift in mindset and resourcing, we hope the IOC will embrace them as part of its commitment to its sporting values and the increasingly high expectations of athletes, fans, sponsors and states.
The report also serves as a powerful reminder that sport more broadly needs to do better. As the report notes: “States and the UN system are now signaling that sports bodies will increasingly be expected to also respect international human rights standards if they are to continue enjoying the privileges of autonomy.” The IOC has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership by meeting these challenges head-on and implementing the changes needed.
The work ahead won’t be easy, especially for organisations that do not have the IOC’s resources. We at CSHR will continue to expand our work to support all sport organisations committed to human rights, including with practical guidance and tools, and through constructive dialogue with all actors in the growing sport and human rights community. We encourage others to speak publicly about that journey so that we can learn together from those experiences and improve as a sector.