THE BLOG
17/06/2015 13:50 BST | Updated 17/06/2016 06:59 BST

Imagine If the International Olympic Committee Spoke Out on Azerbaijan

As the European Games opened in Baku on Friday with Lady Gaga belting out Imagine from behind a grand piano buried in foliage, it was impossible to know for sure how John Lennon would have felt about his iconic protest song being appropriated by one of the most repressive regimes in Europe. You could take an educated guess though.

As the European Games opened in Baku on Friday with Lady Gaga belting out Imagine from behind a grand piano buried in foliage, it was impossible to know for sure how John Lennon would have felt about his iconic protest song being appropriated by one of the most repressive regimes in Europe. You could take an educated guess though.

Perhaps the organisers of Baku 2015 thought a song about peace and unity would be a fitting tribute to Olympic values, which claim to promote diversity, respect, mutual understanding, and to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of society. Perhaps the authorities thought it would encourage people to believe in the image of their country they have been trying so hard to launder to the world with this event.

What a shame then that the International Olympic Committee, the body responsible for upholding those values, has failed to speak out against the actions of the Azerbaijani government, which has effectively wiped out civil society with violence and intimidation in the run up to the Games. IOC president Thomas Bach stood with President Aliyev at the opening ceremony, and he met athletes over the weekend, but he hasn't breathed a word of condemnation about the context in which these Games are taking place.

Not only have journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians and youth activists been routinely harassed, intimidated, arrested and jailed on trumped up charges, but the authorities have closed their doors to international scrutiny by banning international NGOs and media, including Amnesty International and the Guardian, from entering the country ahead of the Games.

The IOC is not the only one conspicuous by its silence. The European Olympic Committees continue to maintain that the human rights crackdown around their event has nothing to do with them. The German and Swedish Olympic Committees have spoken out, but no word yet from the British Olympic Association, which has sent 160 athletes to Baku. Its chair, Lord Coe, is also a director of Chime Communications - a PR firm that has played a key role in getting major sports events to Azerbaijan, including the European Games. So that's a bit awkward. No word either from David Cameron, but then Azerbaijan has a lot of oil and gas, and his government has reportedly been busy using the European Games to curry favour with Azerbaijan's President Aliyev to secure better trade deals. Highlighting human rights concerns has been left to NGOs, some media, and Bono (credit: Sport For Rights)

Azerbaijan wanted the European Games to be a PR triumph, showing the world an image of a modern, dynamic country. Instead they have been a PR disaster, not just for the Government, but also for the organisers. No one who has had half an eye on the news in the last week can plead ignorance to what's going on. It turns out that holding a major sports event in a country that not only fails to respect basic human rights, but that commits abuses because the event is taking place, is not such a good way of promoting a positive image of yourself.

This is something about which others might consider taking note. Azerbaijan is investing heavily in sport. It will be hosting Formula 1 next year, four games in the 2020 European Football Championships, it has bid twice for Olympics and may well have its sights on the event in 2024. If FI and Uefa don't want their events to be tainted by human rights controversies, they should start using their influence now and urge President Aliyev to stop the crackdown, allow a free press and immediately and unconditionally release government critics who have been unfairly imprisoned.

Sadly, however, this is just one part of a growing trend towards countries with disturbing human rights records attempting to consolidate their power at home, or launder their image abroad, though major sports events.

Russia held the Winter Olympics in Sochi last year amid a crackdown on LGBT rights and peaceful protestors, and shortly before annexing Crimea. Barring any re-run of the vote post-FIFA corruption scandal, in 2018 it will have the World Cup. It has recently passed a law banning 'undesirable foreign organisations'. You can guess who might be on that list.

The 2022 World Cup is due to go to Qatar - again barring a vote re-run - a country with limited respect for freedom of expression and where serious abuses of migrant workers' rights are routine and widespread, including non-payment of wages, dangerous working conditions and shocking standards of accommodation. More than one worker a day from India or Nepal died last year. Not only that, but in another example of shutting out scrutiny, in the last few months the Qatari authorities have arrested and interrogated international journalists, including from the BBC, who have been there to cover the story.

Meanwhile, next month the IOC will decide who will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The choices? Almaty and Beijing. In Kazakhstan, limits on freedom of expression mean that there is little space for independent media or NGOs. If you don't have prior permission to wear a T-shirt displaying a political slogan you can find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Those who end up in handcuffs or behind bars may well be tortured. China is not averse to carrying out torture either, has a penchant for executing people, and 'picking quarrels' with the authorities can land you behind bars for a very long time. There is little doubt that these problems will be exacerbated by the Olympics coming to town, unless the IOC makes unequivocal demands on the authorities to respect human rights. Its failure to do so in Azerbaijan, however, doesn't bode well.

The IOC likes to present itself as a reformed villain after its post-2002 Salt Lake City Olympics corruption scandal clean up. And last year, while Fifa was denying it had a problem with corruption and refusing to accept any responsibility for abuses of migrant workers' rights in Qatar, the IOC brought in new standards for Olympic events that include human rights. The European Games could be seen as the first test of how effective its rehabilitation has been. Thomas Bach stood literally shoulder to shoulder with Putin and the Aliyevs at the opening ceremony, as Lady Gaga sang about a brotherhood of man - a concept seemingly lost on everyone involved in this sorry saga. Bach hasn't said a word about human rights, and that places a big question mark over any commitment made on paper. Actions always speak louder than words, and choosing to stay silent will make the IOC complicit in all of this.