Our Winter Olympic Shame

The actions of international governments implicitly place greater value on the life of a Belarussian than that of a Uyghur. If we are still serious about human rights for all, then why is China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games?

“Promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” — Words lifted directly from the Olympic Charter. Perhaps naively, I took this as a principle, for when I questioned the UK Government over the unsuitability of Beijing as a host for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games due to the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority, they rejected to approach the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Instead, statements of condemnation were given, that like those of the charter, amount to rhetoric without recourse.

Contrast this to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s announcement that the UK, along with its allies, are drawing up “Magnitsky” style human rights sanctions against individuals within the Lukashenko regime responsible for the rigged Belarussian election and subsequent violence, and what emerges is a shameful categorisation of peoples as either ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ of our support.

When the same “Magnitsky” style sanctions were brought up by Baroness Northover in relation to the Uyghurs, the government “could not speculate on designations” and could only repeat the pleas of the UN for China to allow investigators unfettered access to the region, an appeal unheard as reports of widespread human rights abuses continue to filter through.

Belief in the dignity of all peoples is fundamental to the Christian faith, and I support Government measures to uphold the dignity of the Belarussian people. Neither do I take lightly the numerous complexities that action against China would entail. Targeting Belarus is admirable, and deserves praise, but it is hardly courageous. Belarus is a state with few international friends; a remaining European dictatorship with an emblem reminiscent of its predecessor Soviet Republic. Transactionally, measures against Belarus would have marginal consequences. In 2017 the UK only exported $249 million worth of goods to Belarus; a relative insignificancy compared to the near $800 billion of total exports for that year.

China conversely is the second-largest economy and an emerging military superpower with an annual UK export value of around $30 billion and significant business interests in key UK infrastructure projects. These facts are daunting, and understandably enough to inform our current hesitant approach, but equally so is the truth that pleas and statements will not halt the plight of the Uyghur people.

It is easy to profess a belief in human rights when the stakes are low, ours ought not be fair-weather. A show of courage is required, not just on the part of the United Kingdom, but from all those within the international community who share our concerns. Lord Alton of Liverpool, who I know also cares deeply about the Uyghurs, wrote to the Government in a similar vein to myself. In the Government’s response, they attributed their refusal to act on rule 27.6 of the Olympic Charter, stating that “The NOCs (National Olympic Committees) must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures…which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter.”

However, what myself and Lord Alton alluded to does not fall foul of this regulation, on the contrary, it is incumbent on governments internationally to intervene and uphold the charter. As a Bishop, I’m no legal guru, even then surely by opting in to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the British Olympic Association is failing in their commitment to the uphold the charter by implicitly legitimising a regime attempting to systematically suppress Uyghur birth rates, aggressively ‘sinicize’ the region through re-education detention facilities, and, most disturbingly, the unconfirmed reports of industrial organ harvesting.

An Olympic Games played behind the backdrop of the ongoing situation in Xinjiang is disreputable. Those who seek to impose sanctions against the Belarussian Government bear an equal responsibility to offer more than strong words in defensive of China’s Muslim Turkic minorities. We must then begin to show a measure of consistency. Each nation in the human rights believing quorum should pressure their respective NOCs to write to the IOC emphasising that treatment of the Uyghurs makes Beijing an unsuitable host city and that an immediate review should be forthcoming.

If human rights matter, then all peoples are worthy of them. Through inaction, we are permitting China the freedom to repress and setting the stage for a future whereby strong and economically significant nations can treat their populations with impunity. Belarussians and Uyghurs are equally deserving of dignity, and that, not fiscal pressures, is what should guide our collective action.


Bishop of St Albans, Doctor of Philosophy, Lords Spiritual Member of the UK Parliament

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