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7 Feb 2014

Ella Skybenko, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Companies can help advance human rights; Sochi shows they rarely do

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First appeared in The Guardian

The world will start watching the costliest Olympics in history today. And perhaps one of the most controversial.

The multi-billion pound prestige projects for the Sochi winter Olympics contrast violently with the exploitation of workers engaged in Olympic construction; allegations of the illegal dumping of construction waste threatening residents' health and safety; evictions and displacement of residents to make way for Olympic venues; and harassment of environmental and human rights activists and journalists who criticise Olympic preparations or the government's anti-gay policy.

Campaigns to raise these issues are making a difference. Putin's fumbling comments on the repression of gays in Russia shows they're having some impact. The German president has boycotted the games in protest of human rights abuses; so too has EU commissioner Viviane Reding.

Many of the companies involved, from sponsors to construction firms, have remained strikingly quiet. Yet having made the choice to put rewards from the Russian market over human rights, they appear complicit.

Both state-owned and private companies are involved in many of these abuses. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked the allegations of abuse, campaigns, and responses as well as more positive accounts of sponsoring companies, such as AT&T, which has taken a public stand against Russia's anti-gay legislation.

As part of research for its 2013 report (PDF) on exploitation of migrant workers engaged in Olympic construction, Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent letters to 11 companies involved in the construction requesting their response to the documented allegations. Five responded, claiming that they were not aware of any abuses and complied with human rights principles. Engeocom Association, for example, said that it "regularly undertakes inspections of the respect for rights of migrant workers" and is "not aware of these instances of violations".

HRW also urged the main corporate sponsors of the Sochi games – Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonald's, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung and Visa – to speak out against the rights abuses.

Eight of them provided written responses saying that they had raised concerns with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and some made general public statements against discrimination. However, none of them explicitly agreed to urge the IOC to press Russia to repeal its shameful anti-gay law.

Companies might argue that is not their role to press Russian authorities to comply with the Olympic Charter, which includes a non-discrimination clause at odds with Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" law. But workers, and the wider civil society, know what the international expectations of business are. These include complying with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), to prevent or mitigate adverse effects on human rights, and working within the ILO fundamental principles on freedom of association; the elimination of forced or compulsory labour and the elimination of discrimination in employment.

A recent study by NGO Swedwatch concluded that one of the reasons many companies do not have have procedures for mitigating the risk of adverse human rights impacts related to sponsoring activities, is that the Olympic movement lacks a human rights policy.

Would sponsors' behaviour be different if the movement did have a human rights policy? Would have they still been unwilling to speak out strongly against rights abuses linked to the Olympics preparations if the games were hosted by a country other than Russia? Will future games be hosted in countries without human rights guarantees and an accountable government?

It seems that the policies of the Russian government play an important role here. Despite Russia being a core sponsor of the UN Human Rights Council resolution endorsing the UNGPs, the government is somewhat reluctant to implement its duty to protect against human rights abuse by business enterprises.

Many major companies in Russia are either supported or owned by politicians in power. As a result, companies operating in Russia may be less concerned about human rights; they know they can get away with pretty much anything.

Criticising companies involved in Olympics construction would mean criticising the Russian government. Criticising the government is a very risky step for a company interested in entering the Russian market. But sponsoring events, like the Sochi Olympics, which are intimately embroiled in systematic abuse of human rights, may carry greater risks to the reputation of the companies, by way of consumer boycotts or divestment campaigns.

It's a matter of choice. AT&T made a choice to publicly condemn Russia's anti-gay law, setting an example for other Olympic sponsors. It remains to be seen what other companies choose to do.