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Impact of Beijing Olympic Games on Human Rights

Emma Lugenbill and Ann Galea; English Editor: Sarah Webborn; traducci√≥n espa√Īola Ana Beltran
17 December 2008

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), the Earth Focus Foundation organized a student debate at the International Conference Centre of Geneva on December 10th 2008, addressing "What was the impact of the Beijing 2008 Olympics on Human Rights?"

The day provided an unparalleled opportunity for the students from Geneva and Mombasa to interact with the expert panel of guest speakers which included Professor Kirk Boyd, (University of California, Berkeley Law School, Project 2048), Mr. Anton Burgener (International Olympic Committee, IOC, Switzerland), Mr. Zhou Xianfeng  (Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva), Mr. G√©rard B√©roud, (Director of SinOptic, Lausanne), and Mrs. Laurence Lorenzini (Human Rights Watch, Geneva.) Students discussed in depth the multifaceted nature of Human Rights issues in China and planned ahead for the 100th anniversary of the UNDHR in 2048.

In his opening speech, Dr. Nicholas Tate, President of Earth Focus Foundation and Director General of the International School of Geneva, emphasized the importance of human rights and asked the students to reflect on the place they ought to play in our lives. While describing the UNDHR as "a declaration with intent for hope worldwide" which has led many parts of the world to enjoy "a respect for human rights that did not exist previously", he showed concern as "we remain a long way from ensuring that human rights are respected everywhere".

The round table of experts then raised a number of issues, addressing the question of the day from their own organisations' point of view. The impact on the students was evident from the passion and liveliness of the questions that they raised at the end of the morning session and by the inclusion and repetition of numerous facts during the afternoon debate.

Professor Kirk Boyd presented on the future of human rights and PROJECT 2048. He then invited students to think about where human rights should be in the future, declaring that "on the 100th anniversary we are looking for a set of human rights that can be legally enforceable in all countries".

The students then heard with keen interest the interactions between Human Rights issues, politics and the IOC from Mr. Anton Burgener who stated that although the IOC is first and foremost a sports association, "human rights issues are a concern if they are directly linked to the Olympic Games". Prior to the 2008 games the IOC had involvement, not only with human rights organizations, but had also consulted with the Chinese authorities on a regular and confidential basis. "IOC cannot sit back and not get involved, this would be suicide. We need politics to guarantee us in our fight against doping, racism and violence." He also pointed out the strides that China had made with regards to freedom of the press, internet access and the advances in favour of the environment.

Mr. Zhou Xianfeng added an important perspective to the discussion when speaking about the reasons why China had pursued the privilege of hosting the event. He said that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games could change the way the world looks at China and invited the students to think of China as "a developing country" adding that "harmony is our (China's) destination".

Mr. Gérald Béroud gave an expert review of Chinese civilization, its history and significance in the world. He warned students against "the risk of caricature and not enough qualified information", and gave several recent examples of human rights clauses introduced in the Chinese Constitution.

Finally, a dissenting voice was raised by the last speaker for the morning, Mrs. Laurence Lorenzini who said that "we regret that China has not respected its commitments to Human Rights", and made special reference to the issues surrounding the forced displacement of people in the run up to the games, clearing the way for the construction of the Olympic Village, the poor treatment of migrant workers in China and the lack of press freedom. She finally called for the IOC to use human rights as a criterion in deciding who will host the future Olympic Games.

Mr. Terence Gale (Collège du Léman) opened the afternoon session and handed over to Mr. John Phillips (Ecolint, La Grande Boissière), who gave the students a very compelling first hand review of the changes he had observed in China in recent years. Students from the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa, Kenya, then presented both perspectives of the issue. In their view, the Olympic Games should only serve as a celebration of sports. They challenged that the Human Rights records of future Olympic hosts should also be put under the same spotlight of international scrutiny as was the case of China and its policy on Tibet.

Mrs. Sandra Brazzini and Mr. Kieran Gopaul (both from the Earth Focus Foundation) moderated the debate on the legacy of the Olympic Games on Human Rights in China. Students from the International School of Geneva (La Grande Boissi√®re, La Ch√Ętaigneraie, Campus des Nations), Coll√®ge et √Čcole de Commerce Madame de Sta√ęl (Geneva), Aga Khan Academy (Mombasa) and Coll√®ge du L√©man (Geneva) addressed a set of questions: Did the Olympic Games improve freedom of expression and media censorship in China? Was the local population affected by the construction of the Olympic Village? What was the impact on health and the environment? What are the economic consequences?

The lively debate that followed showed that there are no simple answers to these questions. Contrasting lines of reasoning were argued, some taking the stand that the greater common good is paramount, others insisting that individual human rights must be respected at all costs. This diversity of opinion was finally attributed to the fact that China has enormous internal complexity, is fast becoming a major global economic power and that governing the largest population in the world is no easy matter.

Students agreed that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games were an enormous organisational and sporting success for China, which had undoubtedly heightened the sense of national pride. They disagreed however on whether the Olympic Games had left any lasting effect on the freedom of expression and local media censorship. The access given to the international press during the games was interpreted as a positive sign, but they felt that the pressure for greater freedom of expression must continue and that the local media had the greatest role to play.

Some students questioned whether the human rights of people who where forcibly displaced during the construction of the Olympic Village had been respected at all, but this argument was rebutted by others who mentioned that the compensation given by the government was both generous and adequate. In contrast, the effect on health and the environment was generally agreed to be very positive and the improvements in the public transport system in Beijing, as well as the government led drive for cleaner less polluting factories, were applauded. Whether these changes are sustainable over the long term and how this would be replicated in other big cities remains to be seen.

In the opinion of the students, the economic effects accruing from the event are also decidedly positive. The 2008 Olympic Games were claimed to have attracted many tourists to the city of Beijing and advertising was also assumed to have generated much revenue. The question remained, however, whether everyone would profit equally from the distribution of these economic gains. Students could not find an answer to this and suggested that perhaps it was probably too early to tell.

Students closed the day by producing a statement for each school which was incorporated into the mission statement below:


The Olympic Games highlighted the stakes China is facing and we hope that this will continue to exert pressure on the Chinese government to continue to improve human rights and the environment. China is still an emerging economy with  work in progress and will not improve to the same standards as other developing countries overnight.

Mission Statements from participating schools
As opposed to a black and white view, there are many shades of grey representing the idea that some of the positive impacts that the Olympics had on Beijing and China also had their negative effects. (The Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa)

Il ne faut pas fermer les yeux sur les efforts de la Chine, mais ces efforts ne sont pas encore suffisants sur le plan national et international. Nous devons donc encourager la Chine de continuer sur ce chemin de progr√®s. (College de Sta√ęl)

Having discussed the impact of the Beijing Olympics on China we have come to the conclusion that the Beijing Olympics had a positive effect on the world's attitude towards the hidden gem that is China. (Collège du Léman)

Though insufficient, China has made an effort during the Olympic Games and only time will tell if they will keep up there effort. (Campus des Nations)

During the course of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has violated many human rights. However, this might have lead the way to a bigger appreciation of human rights and openness to the scrutiny/pressure from the rest of the world. (La Grande Boisière)

The Beijing Olympics affected China economically, environmentally, educationally and socially. However, it is still an emerging economy as well as a work in progress and will not improve to the same standards as other developing countries over night. (La Grande Boisière)

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