Global Games and global gains for human rights

Anna Triponel

November 30, 2020

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Executive Board has confirmed that the IOC will be strengthening how the organisation addresses human rights issues – including the development of an IOC human rights strategy and policy commitment, the embedding of human rights in the good governance principles, and the establishment of a Human Rights Advisory Committee. The IOC is looking at its responsibility across its three spheres of influence, namely: (1) its own administration’s activities, (2) its role as organizer of the Olympic Games and (3) its role as an authoritative leader of the Olympic Movement. The IOC released in full the recommendations informing its approach developed by human rights experts Rachel Davis and Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein – which emphasize in particular the need for the IOC to move from a model based on legal liability and control to one based on responsibility and leverage.


  • In March 2019, Rachel Davis (Vice President and Co-Founder of Shift) and Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current Perry World House Professor of the Practice of Law and Human Rights at the University of Pennsylvania) were asked by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to conduct an assessment of the IOC’s human rights policies and practices and develop a series of recommendations
  • Per the authors, the assessment “included consultation with a broad range of IOC staff as well as with expert stakeholders – from human rights NGOs to trade union representatives – whose perspectives informed our understanding of the human rights challenges and opportunities across the Olympic Movement.”
  • The resulting report, Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy, was finalised earlier this year and made public by the IOC in December 2020. The report outlines “recommendations on how the IOC can meet its human rights responsibilities and demonstrate leadership on human rights for the Olympic Movement as a whole through a comprehensive strategy that builds on Agenda 2020 and is aligned with UN human rights standards.”
  • This report, and the IOC’s work moving forward was discussed by the IOC’s Executive Board in November, and the IOC confirms a number of steps that will be taken moving forward. This includes in the short term the development of an IOC human rights strategy and policy commitment and in the medium term the embedding of human rights in the good governance principles, and the establishment of a Human Rights Advisory Committee.
  • The release of the report is significant for the mega-sporting events community. The IOC is one of the largest sports bodies in the world and has a presence in nearly every country through links to National Olympic Committees (NOCs), International Federations (IFs) and other local sporting bodies. The Olympic Games have the potential to generate revenue, create jobs and bring economic development to cities and countries. But at the same time, they also have an outsized potential to cause serious harm to people, from child and forced labour, to human trafficking, to abuse of athletes, to abusive labour conditions, to community displacement, to repression of civic freedoms, to environmental destruction, and more.

Proposed Strategic Framework on Human Rights for the IOC Aligned with UN Standards

The report proposes a three-part strategic framework to help the IOC understand its responsibility to respect human rights, and to operationalise this framework.

  1. “Moving from a model based on legal liability and control to one based on responsibility and leverage”: The report notes that the IOC needs to shift its perception of “responsibility” from a matter of legal liability (e.g. contractual provisions between the IOC and the national organising committee to execute the games) towards a human rights-based understanding. A key part of this is using its leverage and influence to shape the behaviour of other actors on human rights, even where the IOC does not itself operate on the ground.
  2. “Modes of connection to human rights harms and what can reasonably be expected of the IOC”: The IOC plays a unique role as a governing body. It can “be connected, or linked, to a huge range of potential and actual impacts on people through the activities of NOCs, IFs and other entities within the Olympic Movement.” The below diagram outlines the responsibility of the IOC to respond to human rights issues depending on its connection to them:

Source: Rachel Davis and Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy (March 2020)

  • “Making it manageable: Adopting human rights due diligence and grievance processes”: The complexity of the IOC’s governance and operations makes it “essential” to prioritise its most salient human rights issues. The report recommends that the IOC conduct robust human rights due diligence, including “meaningful engagement with affected stakeholders.”

Key recommendations

Building on six overarching principles that should inform the IOC’s strategy going forwards, the authors make five key recommendations to the IOC:

1. “Articulating the IOC’s human rights responsibilities, including by adopting appropriate amendments to the Olympic Charter and other core documents, developing a detailed human rights policy commitment reflecting the expectations of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and setting similar expectations for the Olympic Movement as a whole through the ‘Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance of the Olympic and Sports Movement.’”

2. “Embedding respect for human rights across the organization to ensure that the IOC’s commitment is driven into its values and culture, including by: hiring a Head of Human Rights to lead implementation of a new human rights strategy, supported by a Human Rights Unit; establishing a cross-functional steering group on human rights at Director-level; ensuring the IOC’s governing bodies take full account of human rights in their decision-making (including through the role of the proposed Human Rights Advisory Committee); and ensuring that there is human rights expertise in the IOC’s consultative Commissions.”  

3. “Identifying and addressing human rights risks by strengthening human rights due diligence across the IOC’s operations, including by: routinely integrating the perspectives of affected stakeholders (such as athletes, journalists, volunteers, fans, workers and local communities) into the process of identifying and taking action on human rights risks; significantly strengthening the way in which athlete voice and representation informs decision-making within the IOC and the [Olympic] Movement more broadly; taking a more robust approach to using the IOC’s leverage with National Olympic Committees and International Federations on human rights issues; and integrating a focus on salient human rights issues (such as child protection and respect for athletes’ human rights) into existing areas of the IOC’s work.”

4. “Tracking and communicating on the IOC’s progress, including by: evaluating the human rights performance of the IOC’s partners, especially that of OCOGs [i.e. Organising Committees for the Olympic Games] for upcoming editions of the Olympic Games; deepening the IOC’s engagement with affected stakeholders and their legitimate representatives (including trade union representatives where athletes are unionized), or with credible proxies for affected stakeholders’ views where direct engagement is not possible; and enhancing transparency about the IOC’s human rights efforts.”

5. “Strengthening the wider remedy ecosystem in sport by contributing to a significant improvement in the quality of grievance mechanisms at all levels of sport, including strengthening sports bodies’ own mechanisms, supporting social dialogue processes in sport, and enabling access to state-based forms of remedy for severe human rights harms. We recommended that this should begin with an initial focus on: improving access to remedy in cases of harassment and abuse; improving Games-time grievance mechanisms (run by the IOC as well as by OCOGs); and reviewing the preparedness of the IOC’s own systems to handle human rights complaints.”

Source: Rachel Davis and Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy (March 2020)

  • Laws vary by region, but not by much. European countries tend to prohibit all payment of recruitment costs, whether at home or abroad, while in the Middle East and North Africa fees are typically prohibited only for international recruitment. In Asia-Pacific, many governments have created separate ministries for labour migration and most regulate (but do not prohibit) payment of recruitment fees and related costs, with half of these focused exclusively on international recruitment. In the Americas, more countries prohibit charging fees than those that only regulate it, and in Africa, there is an even split.
  • A few countries’ laws focus on specific sectors. “Only in a few cases do national laws and regulations focus on a specific sector – for example agriculture, domestic work or construction.”
  • While most countries have laws allowing for sanctions for noncompliance, monitoring and enforcement remain limited. “Sixty-six countries (73 per cent) have legal provisions to sanction violations of policies on fees and related costs, including suspension, revocation of licences, imposition of fines and penalties, and criminal charges. Monitoring and enforcement of national laws and policies on fee and related cost charging, however, is limited.”
  • Less than half of the countries have formally defined recruitment fees and related costs. “Twenty-seven countries have formulated full or partial definitions of recruitment fees and related costs. Six have included a full definition of their recruitment fees and costs, while the others have itemized cost categories and identified cost-sharing arrangements.”

Read the full report here: ILO, A Global Comparative Study on Defining Recruitment Fees and Related Costs: Interregional Research on Law, Policy and Practice (November 2020)

“Human rights are about valuing and ensuring individual dignity. And respect for peoples’ dignity is fundamental to the values enshrined in the Olympic Charter. As we assessed what the IOC had in place, we found many examples of how the organization has carried out important work on human rights, even if it has not always been described as such. But this work has typically happened in silos, independently of an overarching or coordinated approach on human rights. Recently, this has begun to change as the IOC has become more explicit about the centrality of human rights in its own operations, its role as custodian of the Olympic Games, and its leadership of the Olympic Movement. However, more remains to be done.”                        

Rachel Davis and Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Statement on the Publication of the Report ‘Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy’ (December 2020)

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