Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Michael Kouraba headshot

A Reply to the IOC’s Response on Human Rights in Sochi


On Feb. 10, as the 2014 Winter Olympics were about to kick off in Sochi, Russia, I wrote a post arguing that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may have acted contrary to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), flowing from the IOC’s decision to allow Russia to host the 2014 Winter Games. That post was linked to by the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, which went on to request comment from the IOC. To my surprise, the IOC actually responded. Given that the IOC found the time to respond to me, I thought it only proper to return the favor.
The IOC’s response can be broken down into two basic arguments:

  • First, the UNGPs do not apply to the IOC because the IOC is not your run-of-the-mill corporation; and

  • Second, even if the UNGPs do apply, and to the extent that Russia engaged in human rights violations in preparation for the games (as others have documented and I summarized), the IOC complied with the UNGPs by addressing those violations.

The IOC is different

The IOC isn’t commercial.  The IOC’s first argument appears to be that the UNGPs do not apply to the IOC because the IOC is unlike a “commercial company.” To illustrate, the IOC points out that its product is “a set of values symbolized by the Olympic rings,” rather than “a laptop or a smartphone.” Fine. But even if we agree that the IOC deals in “values” rather than, say, entertainment (and I’m not sure we should agree), I don't see how that is relevant.

Whether a business enterprise is obligated to comply with international human rights law does not turn on how similar that enterprise’s product is to a consumer electronic good. The UNGPs apply whether an organization sells petroleum, produce, prescription medication or anything else, and to imply that it is only the Apples of the world that are obligated to follow the UNGPs is to miss the point entirely. To accept the IOC’s argument would be akin to allowing Nestle to defend itself against allegations of human rights abuse in its supply chain because Nestle sells a “taste experience” rather than chocolate bars. The IOC had a duty to ensure that its business partners--in this case, the Russian government and the Russian government’s contractors--did not engage in human rights violations, and the way the IOC decides to define its product has no impact on that duty.

The IOC does a lot of good. The IOC also relies heavily on the fact that “the games are designed to bring lasting benefits to the host city and nation.” I do not doubt that--in fact, I experienced those benefits first hand when riding the Athens subway after the 2004 Summer Games (it beat your typical NYC commute, that's for sure). Yet, again, I question the relevance. Many major multinationals engage in extensive philanthropy; others have robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. These are important facts that should be encouraged, and the IOC should likewise be applauded for its community revitalization efforts. However, those ancillary benefits have absolutely no bearing on the IOC’s or any other entity's obligations under the UNGPs.

The IOC didn’t “transact” with Russia. The IOC also states, almost off-hand, that its “engagement with a host nation is not a transactional relationship.” The relationship may or may not be explicitly transactional, but it is surely contractual and there are resultant obligations imposed upon both parties--implicitly or otherwise--once the IOC decides to award a particular games to a particular country. Whether Russia and the IOC literally exchanged payment for services is beside the point.

The IOC did what it could

The foregoing arguments notwithstanding, the IOC ultimately concedes that it “has a responsibility to defend human rights in games-related cases.” Its defense is twofold: that it sought certain “assurances” from Russia; and that it eventually intervened in the games-related cases I cited.

As the IOC acknowledges, it had a duty to take remedial action with respect to games-related human rights abuses (as it promised to do in 2011).  That it did make efforts to intervene and remediate in certain instances is significant and commendable. Yet, as Human Rights Watch noted, “[w]hile the IOC’s late action is important, more workers would have benefited if it had acted sooner.” I am in no position to add anything to what HRW has already said on this point.

The more troubling point is the IOC's implication that seeking assurances from Russia somehow satisfied the IOC's human rights obligations. First, nothing about the Putin regime would suggest that a human rights commitment from the Russian government should be trusted or taken seriously. I am sure the IOC realizes that, which is perhaps why it attempts to hide behind the claims that the IOC is “not equipped to conduct its own investigation into allegations of human right abuses,” and that it is “first and foremost a sport organization,” which “must rely on information provided by NGOs and by government authorities in the host nation.”

I believe the IOC when it says that it takes its “obligation to defend human rights in games-related cases quite seriously and will continue to meet that obligation to the best of our ability.” Yet, it is disingenuous for the IOC to imply that it was powerless to discern the potential for serious human rights abuses in connection with a Sochi Winter Games, absent some indication of that risk from a third party. All of which, by the way, is moot, in light of the fact that, “[s]tarting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has regularly raised concerns with the IOC about abuses linked to the Russian government’s preparations to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.”

In any case, the IOC was on notice, implicitly or explicitly, of the potential for games-related human rights abuses in connection with a Sochi Olympics, just as it was in Beijing.

Image credit: Flickr/{ QUEEN YUNA }

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

Read more stories by Michael Kourabas

More stories from Leadership & Transparency