PtG Article 20.09.2022

New IOC human rights strategy brought to the test in negotiations with the Taliban regime

Afghan IOC member in exile calls on the Taliban regime to safeguard the sports achievements made by young women and men in Afghanistan during two decades of war. Human Rights Watch says it is delusional to think the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan will honour human rights obligations.

Four years after taking the first steps toward a new strategy on how to better meet its global human rights responsibilities, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally approved a strategic framework on human rights on 9 September 2022.

The approval of the new IOC human rights strategy came one week after the outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet released a long-awaited UN report on serious human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that also cast a shadow over the IOC  seven months after China’s hosting of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.    

But even though human rights experts are now applauding the IOC for finally accepting its global human rights responsibilities, the new Olympic human rights framework is brought to its first test in the IOC’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan on women’s rights to participate in sport.

Human Rights Watch: “A key moment”  

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, labels the new IOC strategy as “a landmark human rights framework,” but she also says to Play the Game that the IOC executive board’s approval of the new strategy is “a key moment to demand that the Taliban allow women and girls the human right to play sport.”

However, based on evidence from Afghanistan of threats, violence, and denial of basic human rights to women when it comes to education, health, livelihood, identity, and right to participate in public life, Minky Worden argues that the IOC negotiations with the Taliban have not resulted in improvements of women’s rights in Afghanistan so far.

“The IOC has had one full year to convince the Taliban to allow women and girls to play sports. It is delusional to think the Taliban will honour their international human rights obligations. Many of the women and girls who played international sports for their country very well remember that the Taliban banned them from any physical activity such as bike riding for physical fitness for health as one of its first acts,” Minky Worden says to Play the Game.

“I have interviewed former national team athletes in Afghanistan who are in hiding and fear for their lives should they try to continue to play sports. This is not the IOC motto of higher, faster, stronger – together. Women and girls are being denied basic human rights and the IOC is not defending their right to play sports or upholding its own Agenda 2020 plank of gender equality.”

Afghan IOC member: “Atrocities against humanity”

Questioned by Play the Game about the ongoing IOC negotiations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Afghan IOC member Samira Asghari writes in an e-mail:

"In my opinion, it is for the Taliban's good to safeguard the achievements made for young women and men in Afghan sport during the last decades of war in Afghanistan as a top national interest. That is the job of every government and the state in the country."

In 2018, Samira Ashgari, the former captain of Afghanistan’s national female basketball team, was appointed by the IOC to represent the committee  in Afghanistan at the age of 24. But since the Taliban regime returned to power in her home country, she has lived in exile in Turkey.

Even though Samira Asghari has a strong personal interest in defending Afghan women’s right to play sports, she did not respond when Play the Game asked her to explain her private opinion of the IOC negotiations with the Taliban regime.

However, in August 2021 when the Taliban returned to power, the Afghan IOC member called on the international society to help female athletes who had taken part in the development of women’s sports in Afghanistan ever since the Taliban lost its power in 2001.

“Afghanistan national female athletes, coaches, and their entourage need your help, we must get them out of the Taliban’s hands. Please do something before it is too late,” Samira Asghari wrote on Twitter, and in August 2022, one year after the return of the Taliban, she posted another tweet saying:

“It is unfathomable that a group in this age is allowed to imprison half of Afghanistan’s population just because of their gender. I hold the entire world, especially the developed countries, responsible for allowing such atrocities against humanity. How do we accept and allow this to go on in the 21st century?”

IOC director: “We are actually quite pleased”   

The negotiations between the IOC and the Taliban began in Doha on 18 November 2021 at a meeting arranged by Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. He has been an IOC member since 2002 and has been criticised for more than a decade by international labour unions and human rights organisations for violating the rights of migrant workers, women, and LGTB-people prior to Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022.

The IOC delegation in Doha was led by the IOC’s deputy director general Pere Miró and included the Olympic Council of Asia director general Husain Al-Musallam. The Afghan team was led by Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, the general director of Afghanistan’s General Directorate of Physical Education & Sports.

On 14 June 2022, the IOC held a second round of talks in Doha with the Afghan National Olympic Committee and sports authorities. According to the IOC, the Afghan representatives reiterated their commitment to fully respect the principles and rules of the Olympic Charter, in particular the fundamental right for all individuals, including women and young girls, to access and practise sport safely, without discrimination.

“We are actually quite pleased with what is going on at the moment,” James Mcleod, IOC director of Olympic Solidarity and National Olympic Committee Relations, said on 1 September 2022 when he spoke about the IOC negotiations with the Taliban regime at the Panam Sports General Assembly in Santiago, Chile.

“You may have noticed at the recent Islamic Solidarity Games that they sent a delegation of men and women to represent Afghanistan. That is a positive sign,” James Mcleod said according to a report from Inside the Games, adding that a report will be made to the IOC Executive Board at the end of 2022 to determine the next step in the IOC’s negotiations with the Taliban.

A separate IOC fund of half a million dollars

Although Samira Asghari represents the IOC in Afghanistan, she says that she did not take part in the IOC meetings with the Taliban. But asked by Play the Game about the present status of Olympic sports in Afghanistan, the Afghan IOC member answered:

“The IOC recognises the current exiled NOC as the last eligible elected National Olympic Committee and supports all sports activities inside and outside the country through their leadership until the next election.”

Do you believe the Taliban will accept the IOC demand for women's inclusion in sports by the end of 2022?

“Since the Taliban accepted in the last meeting with the IOC in Qatar to comply with the Olympic Charter, Olympism, and its values, the IOC along with independent monitoring organisations will monitor their commitment.”

Would you recommend female athletes who fled Afghanistan one year ago to return home if the Taliban accepts the list of IOC demands?

“Well, at the time they had no choice but to be safe. And after they fled, they started a new life in a safe country. That would be their personal life decision to make. But to serve Afghanistan in the future is the goal,” Samira Asghari states.

Last winter, the IOC approved a separate fund of half a million dollars in aid to the Afghan Olympic and sports community. According to Samira Asghari, the IOC will continue to help Afghan athletes with basic life needs and carry on their sporting activities “as long as the current exiled NOC collaborates with the national federations and international federations, especially through the Olympic Solidarity programs.”

An armed group holding the people hostage

Samira Asghari has not replied to Play the Game’s question on whether she trusts that the IOC aid does not fall into the hands of the Taliban regime. The issue was brought up in a Play the Game report during its international conference in Odense in June 2022 by Afghanistan’s first female Olympian Friba Rezayee.

“I was informed by a friend in Afghanistan that when a member of the NOC arrived at the office in Kabul to pick up the money, the money was already in the hands of the Taliban soldiers guarding the NOC office,” the former judoka who now lives in exile in Canada said.

Today, Friba Rezayee is still upset by the IOC’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban regime:

“I appreciate Samira Asghari’s intentions to make it work with the Taliban, but I am afraid that the Taliban hasn't and won't change when it comes to women's sports,” she says to Play the Game.

“The Taliban is a group of armed men who captured the offices and institutions in Kabul by force. No country in the world officially recognises the Taliban as a legitimate government or maintains nation-to-nation diplomatic relations with them, except possibly Pakistan and Qatar. The Taliban group does not occupy a seat in the UN general assembly. The Taliban is an armed group holding the people of Afghanistan hostage.”

The female athletes were human rights activists

Friba Rezayee encourages the IOC and other sports federations to consider the public relations disaster that could be the result of officially recognising a new Taliban-controlled National Olympic Committee in Afghanistan and permitting a Taliban-led national sports organisation to participate in international competitions.

The former Olympic judoka says sports played a vital role in empowering women and girls during two decades of war in Afghanistan and brought visibility to their innate rights. Now, she calls on the IOC to respect their human rights and meet its stated goal of a gender ratio of 50 per cent women in sports competitions.  

“Each of the female athletes were human rights defenders and activists fighting for democracy and freedom. Has the IOC asked the Afghan women athletes what they want and how the IOC should proceed with the Taliban? Do not recognise the Taliban. Work with Afghan women’s sports organisations. Prioritise Afghan women athletes’ safety. Secure sports scholarships for Afghan women athletes,” Friba Rezayee says.

Plans for an IOC Human Rights Advisory Committee

The approval of the new Olympic framework follows the recommendations for an IOC human rights strategy that was presented in a 2020 independent expert report produced by the former UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussain and Rachel Davis, co-founder and vice president of Shift, a leading centre of expertise on the UN guiding principles on human rights.

In an IOC press release, the two human rights experts welcomed the approval of their recommendations by saying “new approaches will be needed to effectively address some of the most severe impacts facing athletes today, including harassment and abuse, voice and representation, and the need for greater access to remedy - informed by the perspectives of those directly affected.”

IOC president Thomas Bach said the mission of the Olympic Movement is to contribute through sport to a better world and insisted that “human rights are in fact firmly anchored in the Olympic Charter”.

Nevertheless, the IOC has now accepted that its human rights responsibilities go far beyond the Olympic Games. Based on its responsibilities as an organisation, as the owner of the Olympic Games, and as the leader of the global Olympic Movement, the IOC has identified 16 human rights objectives to achieve by 2024.

The objectives include amending the Olympic Charter to better articulate human rights responsibilities during the 2023 IOC session and setting up an IOC Human Rights Advisory Committee by the end of 2022 as well as strengthening internal policies and procedures on non-discrimination and harassment, promoting adherence to social and environmental standards in the IOC supply chain, and clarifying the IOC’s expectations toward Olympic hosts in terms of human rights impact management.

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