Could the next Olympics violate human rights?

3 August 2016

On August 5, 2016, Rio will become the first South American city to host the Summer Olympics. Along with the usual fanfare, there are also human rights concerns over the ongoing outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus and its potential impact on athletes and visitors. So much so that dozens of athletes from all over the world have decided to forego the event.
Few sports fans would associate their favourite competition with international human rights law, but according to one legal academic there are some surprising connections at play.
Monash Law School Professor Sarah Joseph, who will deliver the 2016 Michael Wincop Memorial Lecture in August, said sporting’s biggest event—the Olympics—has been embroiled in human rights controversy.

Could the next Olympics violate human rights?
Are we ready for the consequences of going ahead with the Rio Olympic games? (Photo: Griffith University)

The public lecture is being hosted by Griffith Law School’s Law Futures Centre.
Professor Joseph argues that holding the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, when there are serious health concerns about the Zika virus, could potentially violate human rights.
“It is highly unlikely that the [Rio Olympics] will be cancelled, despite the fact that it will inevitably spread Zika worldwide. Will this decision result in major threats to the enjoyment of the right to health?” she said.
Major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics can also lead to other human rights abuses, like the forced eviction of citizens to make way for the stadiums and facilities that need to be built.
Professor Joseph said while responsibility for evicting people falls to the host government, do sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA owe any human rights obligations to the people affected?
“Should events be awarded to countries with terrible human rights records, such as Russia, especially if preparation for the event might lead to abuses, such as deaths during stadium construction in Qatar?” she said.
Professor Joseph said that human rights issues could also arise at the individual level, where the labour rights of athletes are often severely constrained by administrative processes.
“Why is a young AFL draftee not able to play for the club of his choice, but can only play for the club that picks him? Why can they only move to the club of their choice after ten years of playing for the same club?” she said.
What’s most troubling is the way in which some sporting bodies and clubs disregard the health rights of their players. Professor Joseph said the Essendon Football Club doping scandal reveals how the club failed in its duty of care.
“They have been fined for OHS (occupational health and safety) breaches, but the affected players still do not know what they were injected with by their own employer,” she said.
Professor Joseph says that human rights obligations are also at stake in the many football codes that carry the risk of long-term brain damage due to multiple concussions.
Time magazine recently reported that over forty percent of NFL players in the US might have brain injuries. What did the NFL know about the dangers of its product for its employees and when?” she said.
While it may not seem it at first, the sporting arena is rife with human rights issues and obligations that are yet to be determined.
The public lecture that will explore these issues is hosted by the Law Futures Centre and is held annually to honour the scholarship and contributions of the late Professor Michael Whincop.

International Human Rights Law

International Human Rights Law at Griffith Law School is designed to expose students to the laws which deal with the protection of individuals and groups against violations by governments of certain internationally guaranteed rights. Students will gain a greater understanding of some of the theoretical, political and socio-economic issues associated with human rights awareness, advocacy and litigation. This course focuses on the structures and processes through which international human rights norms are established and transformed into rights. Students will gain insight into the relationship of international human rights norms to the Australian national legal system and the specific techniques for the implementation of human rights in domestic and international law.

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