Is Kazakhstan’s Olympic Loss A Win for Human Rights?

On July 31st the city of Almaty, in eastern Kazakhstan, quietly mourned. Across the border in China, Beijing celebrated: earlier that day the International Olympics Committee announced that Beijing, a city without snow, will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

In previous years, activists have lambasted international sport organizations like the IOC or FIFA for ignoring human rights violations in favor of innovative or exciting (read: money-making) bids from competing host countries. The same criticism would surely have followed if Kazakhstan’s had been rewarded with the first Olympic Games in post-Soviet Central Asia.  The country is not exactly a human rights bastion. But could losing the Olympics make the situation even worse?

Freedom House ranked civil liberties in the country at “5” and political rights at “6.” 7 is the worst. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International document widespread use of torture and persecution of political opponents. In the build-up to the IOC’s decision, human rights defenders argued that neither Almaty or Beijing should win the bid. Some went as far as suggesting that, in the absence of better candidates, the competition should be folded and restarted altogether.

A stamp from Kazakhstan featuring olympic champions
A stamp from Kazakhstan featuring Olympic champion Olga Rypakova, via Wikimedia Commons

Is Almaty’s loss, then, a win for human rights?

Few people would say that the Olympics committee has the teeth or even motivation to enforce the human rights stipulations involved in being a host city. The so-called “Olympic Agenda 2020” promises to ‘strengthen ethics’ and ‘ensure compliance’; however, the European Games in nearby Azerbaijan in May, another human rights troubled country, demonstrated that violations are largely met with inertia. The paths of politics and sport continue to collide only in theory.

But there is undeniable merit to the foreign attention paid to Olympics bidders and hosts. The geo-political isolation of Central Asia and the region’s growing ties with anti-human rights Russia make advocating for political, social and economic freedoms difficult. If there is no domestic political currency in protecting human rights, one of the few remaining recourses is international pressure.

In Kazakhstan — a country with chronically weak civil society, a population that cares little for gender equality or LBGT rights, and a political system systematically failing to protect human rights — the significance of moments of international attention is intensely magnified. With the Olympics comes increased foreign media attention and monitoring of human rights. And, for human rights defenders on the ground, the novel feeling that somewhere, some people care about them, can be transformative.

International pressure linked to the Olympic bid delivered concrete results for activists — in May, a group of high-profile athletes wrote to the IOC expressing their concern over Kazakhstan’s so-called anti-gay propaganda law. One week later, the Constitutional Court in Kazakhstan ruled that the bill was unconstitutional, and overturned the legislation. Kazakhstan remains the only post-Soviet country to have backtracked on this law.

A week before IOC members cast their secret ballot, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the reality of life for LGBT persons in Kazakhstan. Discrimination, harassment, alienation and violence are quotidian in what HRW describe as a ‘culture of fear’. Included in their recommendations were calls to the IOC to hold Kazakhstan accountable for the values of non-discrimination enshrined in the Olympic Charter – code for protecting the rights of the LGBT community in Kazakhstan. Now, with that door closed, the number of levers that human rights advocates can pull are diminishing, and activists are scared of a reversal of fortunes.

Now that Almaty’s bid was defeated, all eyes have turned to Beijing. Warnings flood media outlets rightly questioning what it means for the Olympics to take place in a notoriously authortarian regime. Meanwhile, the spotlights on Kazakhstan dimmed and soon will be turned off.