IOC Pressured on Human Rights

Workers clean Beijing's National Aquatics Center, which will host swimming and diving events during the Olympics.
Workers clean Beijing's National Aquatics Center, which will host swimming and diving events during the Olympics. (By Robert F. Bukaty -- Associated Press)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2008

BEIJING, April 3 -- After nearly seven years of careful preparations, it came down to one final, marathon session in Beijing on Thursday. It was the third and final day of talks between Chinese officials and the International Olympic Committee's operations team, the last big inspection ahead of the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games.

The chief of the operations team, Hein Verbruggen, headed to a podium to assure the world that Beijing was on the right track, capable of a "gold medal performance" on everything from providing Internet access and media services to protecting the Olympics brand from piracy.

But almost every question at a news conference Thursday was about China's human rights record. Or possible boycotts by politicians and activists. Or protests by athletes competing in the Games or during the Olympic torch relay.

"A lot of things have happened . . . that have caught the headlines," one reporter said, asking whether the unrest in Tibet, disruptions to the Olympic torch relay or film director Steven Spielberg's resignation as artistic director over Darfur and China's ties to Sudan had soured or changed the way the Games are viewed.

It didn't help that a Beijing court had hours earlier sentenced human rights activist Hu Jia to 3 1/2 years in prison for subverting state authority. In interviews with foreign reporters and in articles he posted on the Internet, Hu had compared the Communist Party to the Mafia, called for greater autonomy for Tibet and complained about living under house arrest.

Even the U.S. Embassy, which tends not to identify by name the prisoners it is pushing China to free, said it was dismayed by the Hu verdict. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at a NATO summit in Romania, said the sentencing was "deeply disturbing to the United States."

While the embassy repeated calls for Hu to be immediately freed, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which lobbies for the release of political prisoners, said China was not likely to bend.

"I see no sign the Chinese government is inclined to make concessions to international public opinion," said John Kamm, who is visiting Beijing this week. He said he had been told by senior diplomats that the Chinese were afraid it would be viewed as a sign of weakness.

In an indication of how the Olympics have been overshadowed by political concerns, Verbruggen's comments at the news conference were both forceful and slightly weary.

"It's not the first time that I'm saying this. It's not up to us to comment on those cases," he said. "It's a matter of Chinese law, and it's not a matter of sport nor a matter for the Olympic Games or the IOC. . . . We are not a political organization."

In noting that candidates to host the 2016 Summer Olympics include Madrid and Chicago, Verbruggen asked, "Would the IOC be forced or obliged to speak out because Madrid is a candidate, on the requests of the Pays Basque to be independent from Spain? Or would the IOC, because Chicago is a candidate, have to speak out on Guantanamo or Iraq?"

New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the IOC this week of operating in a "moral void" and asked it to explain what standards compatible with respecting human rights should be used in guiding the Olympic movement.

"The question isn't whether the IOC is a human rights organization," Sophie Richardson, the group's Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. "It's whether the Olympic movement respects human rights."

Some rights groups have urged at least a partial boycott of the Games. An umbrella group of Darfur organizations added its name to that list Thursday, saying world leaders should stay away from the opening ceremony unless China did more to pressure Sudan to end atrocities.

When questions at Thursday's IOC news conference weren't about politics, they were about the myriad problems Olympics organizers have been fighting to address including Beijing's choking pollution, travel restrictions on journalists and state media reports that live television footage from Tiananmen Square will be banned.

More than 22,000 foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the Olympics. But Chinese officials are currently stoking nationalistic outrage toward the foreign media for their reporting on the rioting in Lhasa last month.

Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, who also addressed reporters, said the Internet would be accessible during the Games. But he also argued that because so many Chinese Internet users are teenagers, "of course we need some control."

Journalists would have access to Tiananmen Square, Wang said. There would be no delay in the live television feed from the Olympic Games, as viewers of CNN in China often experience. The delay allows Chinese censors to black out content they deem too sensitive for domestic audiences.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company