PtG Article 07.11.2023

The IOC has turned a blind eye to Taliban violations of the Olympic Charter for more than two years  

While the Taliban are still denying women in Afghanistan the right to play sports, the IOC continues to negotiate with the regime. The IOC's decision to return cricket to the Olympic programme could provide leverage against the regime as cricket is very popular in Afghanistan.

For more than two years, the Taliban regime in Kabul has been in full violation of the Olympic Charter thanks to its religious war on women’s sport in Afghanistan. But the Islamic rulers of the Asian country have not yet been sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for their discrimination against female athletes.

At a session held in Mumbai, India, from 15 to 17 October 2023, the IOC approved new human rights amendments to the Olympic Charter, but the IOC is still turning a blind eye to the Taliban violations of the charter apparently because it hopes to negotiate a human rights strategy with the Taliban that can ensure access to sport for all women and girls in Afghanistan.

At the IOC session, James Macleod, IOC director of NOC Relations, Olympic Solidarity and Olympism365, used less than three minutes to explain why the IOC is accepting the Taliban violations of the Olympic Charter without any sanctions of the country and is continuing its gender equality negotiations with the Islamic regime.

James Macleod stated that it’s "a very complex situation" but he also said there has been "a tiny bit of progress" in the IOC negotiations with the Taliban which makes it relevant for the IOC to keep on trying to persuade the armed group of religious men to stop their war on female athletes and all other women in the country.

“We witnessed that in the recent Asian Games in Hangzhou, the Afghan delegation consisted of 83 athletes, including 15 females in three different sports,” James Macleod said and added that the Afghan delegation had both male and female flagbearers at the regional sports event in China.

But that kind of ‘a tiny bit of progress’ in the IOC’s gender equality negotiations with the Taliban does not impress Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch:

“That the Taliban allow a single female flag bearer at a major tournament, while simultaneously crushing the rights and hopes of millions of Afghan women athletes is more likely a cruel strategy by the Taliban to cover up systematic rights abuses than any mark of meaningful progress,” Worden says to Play the Game.

Friba Rezayee speaking at Play the Game 2022

Friba Rezayee was one of the first female Olympic athletes from Afghanistan, and at Play the Game 2022 she criticised how the IOC continues to fund Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee after the Taliban take-over. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard / Play the Game

Afghan athlete: A waste of time to negotiate with the Taliban

Hundreds of Afghan sportswomen fled the country in August 2021 when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, and for Friba Rezayee, one of the first female Olympic athletes from Afghanistan, the IOC’s troubles with the Islamic regime in Kabul are not complicated at all:

“It’s very simple. Ban the Taliban-run Afghanistan for violating the Olympic Charter like the IOC did in the 1990s. There is precedent. And it’s the same Taliban,” the Afghan Olympic judoka who lives in exile in Canada says to Play the Game.

“What is the mystery behind the negotiations between the IOC and the Taliban? Why are the Taliban not banned from the Olympic movement for violating Afghan sportswomen’s human rights? Why are the IOC negotiating with a group of terrorists?”

To her, the Taliban is nothing but a militant group of Islamic men who have taken her home country and all Afghan women hostage.

“It’s ridiculous and a waste of time to negotiate gender equality with the Taliban. These men do not respect women as persons with rights,” Friba Rezayee says.

There is no future for female athletes in Afghanistan

“It makes me sad because there is no future for female athletes in Afghanistan. Sportswomen will gradually be erased from the Afghan society. The female athletes who grew up in Afghanistan during the past two decades where they were allowed to follow their sporting dreams are now aging and losing interest in sport because of the Taliban.”

Since the Taliban retook control over Afghanistan, Friba Rezayee has written several letters to the IOC urging the committee to ban all Taliban-controlled sports in Afghanistan from the Olympic Movement.

In her latest letter to IOC president Thomas Bach dated October 16, 2023, she and another female Olympic athlete from Afghanistan, Tahmina Kohistani, call on the IOC to respect the rules of the Olympic Charter which says the IOC is obliged to "encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women".

“We are thankful to the IOC Executive Board for its decision to ban Russia from the Olympic Games on October 12, 2023. It is time to ban the Taliban as well,” the two Olympic pioneers of women’s sport in Afghanistan wrote to the IOC president.

IOC Director: A very clear position

At the IOC session in Mumbai, IOC director James Macleod said that the IOC with the help and support from the female Afghan IOC member Samira Asghari has been "insisting on removing existing barriers from the government that hinder women and young girls from accessing sports opportunity in the country."

Macleod said the IOC Executive Board took "a very clear position" on this in December 2022 and that the position has been reiterated and confirmed at the IOC Executive Board meetings in March 2023 and in June 2023. He also said that the IOC has reiterated that position in negotiations with the government authorities in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, including a few days before the IOC session.

When Play the Game asked James Macleod to comment on the IOC negotiations with the Taliban, the IOC Press Office replied in an e-mail by referring to the IOC director’s statement at the IOC session:       

“There is, unfortunately, no tangible progress on this issue at the moment and the IOC receives reports from UN agencies and NGOs which confirm the deteriorating situation of women and young girls in the country.”

In examining whether there has been ‘a tiny bit of progress’ in the IOC negotiations with the Taliban, as argued by James Macleod, or ‘no tangible progress’, as stated by the IOC Press Office, Play the Game also requested Samira Asghari to comment on the situation, but the Afghan IOC member did not respond.

However, the IOC Press Office explains in the e-mail that "the IOC continues, at its level, to do its utmost – in particular through the Afghan NOC and the sports authorities in Afghanistan – for the current restrictions to be reversed in order to ensure safe access to sport for women and young girls, as a prior condition to resume any support to, activities with and continued operations of the Afghan NOC within the Olympic Movement".

The IOC also continues "to support Afghan athletes aiming to qualify for and participate in the Olympic Games Paris 2024". And according to the IOC Press Office, ten Afghan athletes, including male and female athletes, "are currently benefitting from an Olympic Solidarity scholarship, and the majority are training abroad with the help of the NOC of their host countries".

IOC recognises the Afghan NOC in exile

Furthermore, the IOC Press Office says that the IOC continues to recognise and communicate with the Afghan NOC leadership, who was elected prior to the regime change in the country and is partly living in exile, to coordinate the support to the athletes and the preparation of a mixed and inclusive team for the upcoming Games:

“As things stand, and in accordance with the principles and rules of the Olympic Charter, the selection and entry of the Afghan athletes to the upcoming Games falls under the responsibility of the IOC-recognized leadership of the Afghan NOC, in coordination with the international and national federations concerned.”

The IOC Press Office notes that the specific terms for the participation of the Afghan NOC delegation and team in the Olympic Games Paris 2024 will depend on the progress made in relation to the fundamental issue of safe access to sports for women and young girls in the country.

“At this point, it is premature to decide on these modalities, however, what is absolutely clear is that, should there be any participation in the Games under the country’s flag and name, only the official and internationally recognized country’s name and flag, which has not changed, would be authorised”, the IOC Press Office states in the e-mail and adds:

“The IOC has always taken an approach which is aiming at supporting the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan. We will continue to do so.”

Afghan cricket fans

The popularity of cricket with the Taliban could provide leverage for the IOC to negotiate better conditions for women in Afghanistan after the IOC put cricket back on the Olympic programme in 2028. Photo: Alex Davidson ICC / Getty Images

Cricket could play a key role in turning the Taliban

Nevertheless, the new human rights amendments to the Olympic Charter now cast a spotlight on the IOC’s approach to Taliban violations of the charter, and so does another decision at the IOC session in Mumbai.

The IOC members decided to return cricket to the Olympic programme
at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028. This decision is popular among millions of cricket fans in Afghanistan but could also lead to controversy over the way the IOC approaches gender equality negotiations with the Taliban regime in the coming years.

At the Cricket World Cup 2023 in India, the Afghan men's national team in cricket is being embraced by cricket fans all over the world for the team’s sporting results. But since January 2023, the Afghan male cricket players have also lost support from many fans after the players posed with Taliban leaders in photos that have been shared widely on social media instead of supporting the banned female Afghan cricket players.

In solidarity with Afghanistan’s banned female cricket players, Australia's national cricket association, Cricket Australia, announced in January 2023 that it would not play against Afghanistan’s national cricket team for men in March 2023 in a series of matches in the United Arab Emirates.

Cricket Australia’s position was followed up by Human Rights Watch, which urged the International Cricket Council (ICC) to suspend the Afghanistan Cricket Board's membership from the ICC. But in an emailed statement to the Associated Press, an ICC spokesperson said that they consider the Afghanistan Cricket Board to be operating autonomously:

“The ICC board remains committed to supporting the Afghanistan Cricket Board and is not penalizing the board, or their players for abiding by the laws set by the government of their country. The relationship with players in any of the ICC’s member countries is managed by the board in that country, the ICC does not get involved. Similarly, the authority to field men’s and women’s national teams lies solely with the member board in any country.”

Gender crimes against humanity

In December 2022, prior to the Afghan cricket controversy, Human Rights Watch made a similar call on the IOC to "suspend Taliban-run Afghanistan from participating in international sport until women and girls can once again play sport in the country."

Furthermore, in September 2023, Human Rights Watch released the report 'Afghanistan Under the Taliban: The Crime Against Humanity of Gender Persecution' which said that the Taliban laws and policies amount to the crime against humanity of gender persecution under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute because the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls meet the four requirements set out under the Rome Statute:

The attack is widespread or systematic, directed against a civilian population, committed with knowledge of the attack, and the acts are pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organisational policy to commit such an attack.

According to Minky Worden, the IOC’s adoption of a human rights framework into the Olympic Charter is in many ways a historic development that at the same time casts a spotlight on how the IOC is handling a human rights crisis like the one in Afghanistan.    

“The Taliban restrictions on women and girls playing sport are all still in place. The IOC has dual responsibilities in Afghanistan: First to the millions of athletes inside the country, secondly to the exiled Afghan athletes who want and deserve the right to compete on the world stage,” Worden argues in an interview with Play the Game.

She adds that the ties between sport and education are especially close in Afghanistan because so many Afghan women and girls were able to access sport through the education system.

History provides a clear roadmap for the IOC

If the Taliban cannot be convinced to restore sport and education as human rights in Afghanistan, Worden believes the IOC will have to make a decision on the matter sometime between now and the opening of the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“The denial of the right to play sports is a problem that the IOC has dealt with before. In October 1999, the IOC suspended the Taliban-run National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan. So, there is a very clear roadmap for the steps that the IOC needs to take.”

To Worden, the IOC will have to work out a strategy to support athletes inside the country without also supporting the Taliban, and if necessary to sanction the Taliban to make it clear that it’s not okay to ban women and girls from playing sports.

“The example of the Taliban banning women’s sports cannot stand because there are as many bad actors in the world who would love to turn back the clock on women’s sports,” she says.

Pressure points in sport

To the Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives, the upcoming Paris Olympics provides a rare opportunity for any international body to put pressure on the Taliban.

“The Olympics provide a moment when it’s possible to assess the compliance of National Olympic Committees with the Olympic Charter. If you look at other examples in history, it should certainly be possible for the IOC to assess whether the Taliban has a genuine intent to allow women and girls to play sports – and does not just mean that women and girls can only compete in sports outside the country,” argues Minky Worden.

Most other Islamic countries in the world have accepted the IOC’s gender equality strategy because they want to compete at the Olympics, but Worden also sees hope in the fact that many Taliban rulers are fans of cricket.

“When you are dealing with armed groups that are systematically violating basic human rights, they still have something that they want. The Taliban are cricket fans, and there may be pressure points in sport to encourage the restoration of women’s sport and education in Afghanistan,” she says.

“The Taliban understands a lot of things about sports. They understand there is money for the National Olympic Committee. They understand the prestige. The Taliban loves to attend talks in Qatar. There are a lot of things that the Taliban want from the international community and that sport can help deliver for them. It’s the responsibility of the IOC to see if there is any way to negotiate with the Taliban, while always keeping foremost the interests of millions of Afghan women and girls denied the human rights to study and play sport.”

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