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Winter Olympics should focus minds on human rights abuses in Russia

While the recent bombings in the Northern Caucasus underscore the serious threat the country faces from radical Islamic insurgency in the region, the international community should not fail to recognise the recent closing of independent civic space and human rights abuses across Russia – says Mark Cunningham

In less than 30 days, the world will turn its attention to the 22nd Winter Games – in the Russian city of Sochi, which is already touted as being the most expensive in Olympic history. Although the preeminent international sporting event and a global celebration of the human mind, body, and spirit the Olympics have unfortunately never been immune to scandal, corruption and political turmoil. The games have served as a lightning rod for terrorists, like Munich in 1972, or as a catalyst to shed light on gross human rights abuses in the host country – such as Beijing in 2008. The 2014 Winter Olympics promises not to be any different.

The run up to Sochi has already been marred by bombings in Pyatigorsk, Volgograd, and Stavropol – and other serious security threats originating from the North Caucasus. The last few weeks and months have also seen the harassment of civil society activists including environmentalists, human rights activists and journalists. These activists have been working to expose corruption and environmental damage, abuses against Sochi residents and migrant workers – and the recent adoption of a controversial law discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Amnesty International and other leading watchdog groups have documented human rights abuses taking place across Russia. While the controversial anti-gay law has received an enormous amount of international attention, and rightfully so, the Russian government has executed an unprecedented crackdown on civil society in general. Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in May 2012, authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, begun a nationwide campaign of invasive inspections of non-governmental organisations, harassed, intimidated and in a number of cases imprisoned political activists; and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies.

The intent of these laws is to limit or end independent advocacy by placing restrictions on any association with foreigners and foreign funding. The ‘foreign agents’ law, as it is referred to, requires organisations that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’ – recalling Soviet-era rhetoric targeting local dissidents. Another law, adopted in December 2012, essentially bans funding emanating from the United States for political activity by non-governmental organisations and bans groups whose work is targeted against Russia’s interests. A third law, the treason law, expands the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalise any and all involvement in international human rights advocacy.

In addition, 2014 marks 150 years since the expulsion of the native Circassian people from the western Caucasus, whose parliamentary centre was Sochi. The preparations for the Olympics have antagonized the Circassian diaspora, who demand the recognition of past abuses and protest against the current cultural and ecological destruction of their homeland. Yet preparations for the games continue, burying historical abuses and those committed more recently by Putin under $51bn of arenas, luxury accommodations and artificial snow.

While Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter asks delegation members to refrain from using the games to perform acts of political protest, it will be difficult to turn a blind eye to all that is happening in Russia. As the February 7 opening ceremony fast approaches, one must wonder how the international community will respond to Russia’s oppressive actions against the civil society. A growing cadre of international leaders is either calling for a boycott or cancelling their plans to attend or participate on any official delegation. German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, European Commissioner for Justice, Citizenship, and Fundamental Rights Viviane Reding and U. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have already said that they do not plan on attending the upcoming games. Instead, the official American delegation will notably include both Billy Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, two openly gay athletes.

The principles of Olympism as captured in the current Olympic Charter clearly denote the primacy of human dignity, non-discrimination and other basic human rights. Therefore in light of the upcoming Olympic celebration, it is important to remember the spirit or essence of the games. While the recent bombings in the Northern Caucasus underscore the serious threat the country faces from radical Islamic insurgency in the region, the international community should not fail to recognise the recent closing of independent civic space and human rights abuses across Russia.

Mark Cunningham is manager for grant-making at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Take series: Human rights buried under $51bn Sochi Olympics

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